Thursday, April 29, 1999

Baffert has one 'Excellent' entry


Filly, gelding pairing named favorite

BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — Bob Baffert's skull session Wednesday morning with owner John Mabee proved an Excellent Meeting. At the least, it has made the men Kentucky Derby favorites.

        Their 11th-hour decision to enter the filly Excellent Meeting made Mabee's combination entry with gelding General Challenge the 3-1 favorite in the morning line. Baffert also will saddle 7-2 second choice Prime Timber.

        “They talk about the (favorites) jinx, but ... I'd rather be the favorite than 80-1,” Baffert said. “I'm coming in with three good chances to win. I'll take that.”

        Baffert had deliberated for weeks whether to enter Excellent Meeting and Silverbulletday in Saturday's Derby or Friday's fillies-only Kentucky Oaks. He is sending Silverbulletday in the Oaks, saying she wasn't trained for the Derby, and still hasn't finalized the other's fate.

        He co-entered Excellent Meeting in the Oaks and Derby and said he may wait until Friday to pick her race.

        “Right now I say she will go in the Derby,” Baffert said. “We're talking about a great filly. She's training the best she's ever trained, and she loves this track. I wouldn't want to keep her from a chance to win the Kentucky Derby.

        “But we're keeping our options open. There are all sorts of things — track condition, weather, all those things — that could factor into this.”

        Only three fillies have won the Derby in its 124-year history, but two of those were in the past 20 years. Excellent Meeting hasn't finished out of the money in 11 races and has earned more than $1 million, the most in this field. The only horse she hasn't beaten since July is Silverbulletday, losing to her twice.

        “Bob's got three nice horses,” Menifee trainer Elliott Walden said. “We're all chasing him, at least on paper.”

        General Challenge, the Santa Anita Derby winner, had been figured nearly a co-favorite with Prime Timber before getting Excellent Meeting added to its entry.

        “I had to go for the entry,” said Mike Battaglia, the handicapper from Edgewood, Ky. “It was still very tough between them and Prime Timber.”

        Battaglia installed Menifee as the 5-1 third choice, followed by Vicar at 6-1 and Cat Thief at 8-1.

        “I was going to make Menifee 4-1 and raise the price on other horses, but his post (No.19) made me go 5-1,” Battaglia said.

        Among serious contenders, the apparent winners in the post-position game were Stephen Got Even (post 4), Excellent Meeting (6) and Cat Thief (11). Baffert had said a far outside post for Excellent Meeting might make him opt for the Oaks, but he likes the six hole.

        Those who suffered most were Menifee (19) and Vicar (18). Only five horses have won breaking from the auxiliary gate (posts 15-20), including only two from posts 17-20.

        When Baffert got to pick posts for Prime Timber and General Challenge back to back, posts 12-20 were open. Baffert surprised critics by selecting 14 for Prime Timber and 15 for General Challenge. That's the outside of the main gate and inside of the auxiliary gate, and he wanted elbow room.

        “Prime Timber is a little bit jumpy, and it will really help them both be more comfortable on the break,” Baffert said. “If you don't break well in this race, you'll find yourself behind 10 or 12 horses pretty quick.”

        Walden wasn't disconsolate. Last year his Victory Gallop drew the 13th post in a 15-horse field and finished second.

        “I wish we had a redraw,” Walden said, referring to last year's mismanaged draw. “We didn't want 19, but we've got a great rider (Pat Day). And this horse has more tactical speed than Victory Gallop.”

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