Absentee trainer Baffert left cherries on tree

By: Wally Hall
Published: Sunday, April 13, 2014
Trainer Bob Baffert watches morning workouts at Churchill Downs Monday, April 29, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
Trainer Bob Baffert watches morning workouts at Churchill Downs Monday, April 29, 2013, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Garry Jones)

HOT SPRINGS - A gray early morning was chased into the shadows here Saturday as thousands and thousands - 63,186 fans in all - made their way to Oaklawn Park for 12 races that included the Arkansas Derby on a brilliant spring day.

Once again a key figure was missing - Bob Baffert, the trainer who oversees one of the most talented and wealthiest stables in all of thoroughbred racing.

Baffert almost never leaves his Southern California home base with his horses - at least not for anything less than the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup - but he flies his charges all over the country to pick up big paychecks for his selected clients. Sometimes he just gets airline miles, like Saturday.

Baffert is the biggest name in horse racing when it comes to training, but all things considered, he is training some of the most well-bred horses in the world and that is a much easier route to the winner’s circle. Still, he has earned his spot in the Hall of Fame (2009) and has three Eclipse Awards for training.

No one is going to say it out loud, certainly not any other trainer or jockey, but what he does is good for his business model, but not necessarily the best thing for the sport of thoroughbred racing.

It would seem the least he could do is hop on a jet and fly to the race to saddle the horses he is responsible for, supposedly on a daily basis.

Nope, that falls to an assistant trainer, the guy who does the dirty work most of the time while Baffert gets the credit and the big paychecks.

Baffert generally cherry picks Oaklawn’s Racing Festival of the South, but even the slicktalking, too-cool-for-school dude should at times wish he was on site for his clients.

Such as Thursday’s $300,000 Count Fleet Handicap when his horse, Secret Circle, who would have been heavily favored, was scratched because it was discovered that Secret Circle had been given a tranquilizer, which could have triggered a positive blood test, about 24 hours before the race, to help him relax on the flight.

Apparently. Baffert couldn’t even find time to be at the plane to make sure everything went smoothly at takeoff. The transport company thought Secret Circle was running on Saturday and thought the tranquilizer would have time to leave his system before racing.

Baffert-trained Pimpernel, Friday’s favorite in the Bachelor Stakes, was fractious in prerace and saddling, kicking his hind legs several times, and while Baffert was in California his horse was running next to last.

He certainly seems to get some lively horses to train.

Another Baffert entrant, Triple Crown nominee JoJo Warrior, ran second to Street Story in Saturday’s ninth race, the Instant Racing, for 3-year old fillies.

Then his big horse, Bayern, like the rest of the Arkansas Derby field, was shocked by Danza, an easy winner.

Baffert had already taken some Oaklawn money home, notably the March 15 Rebel Stakes when Hoppertunity won and then flew back to California.

Instead of bringing Hoppertunity back for the Arkansas Derby, Baffert ran the Rebel winner in the Santa Anita Derby last week, where he ran second, and shipped Bayern to Arkansas.

Bayern, making his third career start, was being compared favorably to another lightly raced Baffert runner, Bodemeister, the 2012 Arkansas Derby winner who went on to run second in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Bayern, who broke on top under Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, led for 6 furlongs but was no Bodemeister. Bayern and the others were simply blown away by 41-1 shot Danza, who found a gear at the top of the stretch he had not shown in three previous starts and in doing so picked up 100 Kentucky Derby points and could be headed to the Run for Roses.

Danza had never runaround two turns, had never raced beyond 7 furlongs and was making his second start since last August for trainer Todd Pletcher before earning a $600,000 check for his owners, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners.

Danza, a son of Street Boss, had earned $66,428 in three career starts, with $4,428 coming in his lone 2014 start. If there had been more than eight horses in the race he might have been 60-1.

Instead, he will celebrate his third birthday Thursday as the winner of the 78th Arkansas Derby, and will be known as the colt who smoked a field that included betting favorite Bayern, trained by an absentee Bob Baffert.

Sports, Pages 25 on 04/13/2014