'You've Got to Be Lucky'
Monday, June 2, 2008
In years such as this, even when he's not running a horse, Bob Baffert is losing the Triple Crown.
If a 3-year-old wins the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness and spends the weeks before the Belmont Stakes at the threshold of racing immortality -- as Big Brown has this year -- Baffert's telephone starts ringing. Everyone wants to disturb his old ghosts: What happened to Silver Charm? Did Desormeaux move too soon on Real Quiet? Would War Emblem have won it if he hadn't stumbled? Why is winning the Triple Crown so darn hard?
"If Big Brown wins, now during this time of year they won't be calling me anymore," said Baffert, who with his mop of white hair, Southern California affability and racetrack prowess is perhaps the most popular trainer in racing.
Thirty years have passed since Affirmed once again turned back Alydar and became the 11th and most recent winner of the Triple Crown. Since then, 10 horses not including Big Brown have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fall short in the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont, a race tagged with the corny but exceedingly apt slogan, "The Test of the Champion."
Six other horses since 1978 collected some other two-out-of-three combination of the Triple Crown series, and trainer D. Wayne Lukas even won his own personal version in 1995 when his Thunder Gulch took the Derby and Belmont while losing to stablemate Timber Country in the Preakness.
Big Brown -- with his brittle front hoofs, compelling stride, and ever-confident trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr. -- will go into the starting gate Saturday as an overwhelming favorite to be the one to finally get the job done.
Baffert, of course, knows the agony of this particular brand of defeat more than most, and yet his Triple Crown losses aren't the racing memories that torture him. Those would be his bitter Kentucky Derby defeats, when Cavonier got caught at the wire by Lukas's Grindstone in 1996, and when the awe-inspiring Point Given finished fifth in 2001 only to subsequently smash his rivals in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"When I won the Preakness and Belmont with Point Given, I was very upset," Baffert said. "I knew this was the horse I was going to win the Triple Crown with."
Baffert said Point Given suffered a cut eye, a bout of colic and just had a bad day when beaten by Monarchos in the Derby.
"So when everybody asks me why it is so hard to win the Triple Crown, I say, 'Do you have a great horse?' " Baffert said. "Do you think Cigar could have done it? Ghostzapper? Spectacular Bid was a great horse, and he couldn't do it. Sunday Silence. Smarty Jones. Real Quiet. Silver Charm. It's just racing luck."
In 1998, Baffert won the Derby and Preakness again, this time with a cheap horse named Real Quiet, whom he called "The Fish" because of his slender construction.
In the Belmont, jockey Kent Desormeaux, who also rides Big Brown, made his move on Real Quiet with six-eighths of a mile to go -- a move called premature ever since.