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Baffert takes big gamble by switching jockeys at the Preakness Stakes

Garcia rode Conveyance, another Baffert entry, to 15th place at the Kentucky Derby earlier this month.
Garcia rode Conveyance, another Baffert entry, to 15th place at the Kentucky Derby earlier this month. (Danny Johnston/associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 15, 2010

BALTIMORE -- With the prospect of good weather and a strong turnout, more than $60 million likely will be wagered on Saturday's Preakness Stakes, in which Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, with the cagey Calvin Borel astride, will try to claim the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.

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But the biggest gamble might be the one made just days ago by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who switched jockeys on Super Saver's most daunting challenger, the beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Lookin at Lucky.

Frustrated by three consecutive bad outings with 38-year-old Garrett Gómez aboard, Baffert replaced the acclaimed jockey, who for the past four years has led all riders in winnings, with 25-year-old Martín García.

Seasoned jockeys angling for the coveted mount told Baffert he was crazy to put his colt -- deemed the nation's best 2-year-old last season -- in the hands of a youngster who had never seen Pimlico Race Course, never ridden the colt in competition and just a few years ago was a cook in a northern California delicatessen.

Baffert says the move is simply an effort to conjure better "mojo" after Lucky's recent string of vexed trips.

Gómez was sharply criticized after the colt was driven into the rail in the Santa Anita Derby and finished third. Then, starting from the unenviable No. 1 spot at Churchill Downs, the Derby favorite got T-boned in traffic and rallied to finish sixth.

"I'm just trying to change the luck somehow," Baffert said. "I want to know: Is he that good? I just want to know what we have."

The move represents a high-stakes leap of faith in the raw talent and saddle smarts of García, who left his family's home in Veracruz, Mexico, as a teenager with little English and big dreams.

"He knows if it doesn't work out, he's not going to get blamed, because it was my idea," Baffert said. "So that takes a lot of pressure off him."

It's a mystery, more art than science, why some horses mesh with certain jockeys but not others.

Trainers, agents and jockeys themselves say they can't explain the elusive blend of chemistry, intuition and personal quirks on the part of horse and rider that makes for a magical on-track pairing or one that's doomed. It's as tricky to predict, they say, as the sparks on a blind date.

According to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 74, elite jockeys don't need a rapport with a racehorse. With a few tips from an astute trainer, a world-class jockey can decode a thoroughbred's personality in the span of a 15-minute warmup.

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