Sunday, May 4, 1997
Baffert blessed this time

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Derby trophy
Silver Charm trainer Bob Baffert, right, hugs jockey Gary Steven's in the winner's circle. (Gary Landers photo)
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LOUISVILLE - Forgive Bob Baffert for being a little camera-shy. When a trainer loses the Kentucky Derby in a photo finish, he tends to be wary of what develops in darkrooms.

If Silver Charm could not win the biggest prize in racing, his trainer's hope was that his colt would be plainly beaten. Baffert did not want to wait for the stewards to study the finish-line photographs. He was not sure he could stand that suspense two years in a row.

Fate, however, does not always oblige the faint of heart. Before Baffert could get his clutches on the Derby trophy, and leap about the winner's circle like a freshly sprung Jack-in-the-box, he would have to endure a stretch run that turned his stomach into a tangle of knots.

''When he made the lead, I saw Captain Bodgit come and I said, 'Please, Lord, don't do it to me again,''' Baffert recalled Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. ''I wanted to win by daylight. I didn't want any photos.''

One day short of one year after losing the Derby by the length of Grindstone's nose, the silver-haired, silver-tongued trainer of Silver Charm was narrowly able to go for the gold Saturday. Silver Charm succeeded where Cavonnier had failed, holding off a closing rush to capture the garland of roses.

Officially, Silver Charm won by a head. Practically, the photo was a formality. Yet in a race where fractions of seconds can mean millions of dollars, Bob Baffert watched the duel down the stretch with a sense of deja vu and another of dread.

''My gut was hurting me so bad when they hit the wire, I couldn't even move,'' Baffert said. ''I was so emotional.''

Baffert is relatively new to the thoroughbred business, but he is already steeped in its traditions of tension. Cavonnier was his first Derby horse, and the Derby's nearest miss since 1959. When Baffert left Churchill Downs last May - ''crawling,'' he said - he wondered if he had lost the chance of his lifetime.

''I haven't really gotten over it,'' Baffert said. ''I thought I had gotten over it, but when I went to the Derby Museum (for Wednesday's draw), I was so moved. When I came out of there, I just shook my head and I almost started crying. I was so emotional. That really got me started. I said, 'I have to win this thing. I need to win this thing. Even if it takes me the rest of my life, I need to win this thing.'''

The Derby is one part competition, and nine parts quest. It is racing's Holy Grail, and many of those who have sought it have become consumed by the chase. D. Wayne Lukas, whose Deeds Not Words ran last Saturday, entered 12 horses in the Derby before he finally won it with Winning Colors in 1988. Owner Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, wealthy beyond words, entered 15 horses between 1935 and 1968, and never ran better than second.

Bob Baffert has been blessed. Despite the excruciating nature of last year's defeat, he was able to win the Derby on his second try. Only eight years ago, he was training quarter horses, and he would have been content to continue. He figured he would need $300,000 to make the move to thoroughbreds. A friend, Mike Pegram, staked him instead to $1 million.

''How can I thank you?'' Baffert asked.

''If you ever win the Kentucky Derby,'' Pegram replied. ''You can thank me then.''

Baffert remembered his obligation to Pegram during his post-race interview with ABC, and he went on to thank Silver Charm's owners (Bob and Beverly Lewis), his jockey (Gary Stevens) and his deity. He compared his own sensations to being ''the quarterback of the 49ers when they won the (Super) Bowl.''

He had felt that way once before, albeit briefly. Before the photo showed Cavonnier a close second last year, Bob Baffert believed he had won. He reached for his wife, Sherry, and hugged her so hard he knocked her hat off. For a few marvelous minutes, he felt as if, ''I've done it all professionally, this it it.''

This time, the photo was more flattering, and the pleasure more permanent.

''This,'' Baffert said, ''is going to last forever.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.