- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 16, 2002

BALTIMORE Trainer Bob Baffert has become the Dr. Evil of the Triple Crown, and the "Austin Powers" fanatic doesn't like it one bit, baby.
So what if Baffert bought War Emblem less than one month before winning the Kentucky Derby? It was a $1million risk on a long shot that wouldn't have even been entered under the former owner. The white-haired trainer "Baffertized" the jet-black colt, changed jockeys with a new Derby strategy and downplayed his chances to let War Emblem gain an early unchallenged edge.
"A lot of people don't feel it's the fair way to come to the Derby, but this is how I make my living," Baffert said of the April purchase. "Everybody wants to see somebody different win, but I want to win it every year. It's like a football coach not wanting to win the Super Bowl every year. If he doesn't you don't want that guy.
"I was buying a horse that was 20-1 [in the Derby], not 1-2. We could have run up the track and look like dummies. This game will make smart people look like dummies. We've bought horses before that didn't work out."
War Emblem is the 3-1 second choice in Saturday's 127th Preakness Stakes. There are still detractors over the colt's worthiness, but Baffert has clearly enhanced War Emblem with his own system of workouts and feed. Baffert is using more leisurely workouts in an attempt to change War Emblem's sprint instincts so he can last over the long classic distances.
The quick study of War Emblem's habits could be Baffert's finest training effort. He spent a year developing past Derby-Preakness winners Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), and Preakness-Belmont Stakes champion Point Given (2001).
"This horse was a project," Baffert said. "I didn't know what I thought, but when they turned for home [in the Derby] it seemed like I had him all my life. Now he's part of the family. He's blooming."
But the Derby success brought an immediate backlash. Baffert's lounge act sometimes wears thin and is taken personally by competitors. Baffert has traded barbs with trainers D.Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito in the past. But no long-term strain remains when opponents figure out Baffert is just joking.
"When Grindstone won [the 1996 Derby] and the press was on Lukas' case, he was taking things personally. At the time, Wayne was very defensive about a lot of things about him," Baffert said. "We get along fine now. We're competitors. We're both quarterhorse boys, we do things different. We say what we think. That doesn't always agree with a lot of people. I think Wayne is good for the game. We try to have fun with it and we get ridiculed for it."
Baffert wondered if he would even make the Derby when his string of 3-year-old colts steadily declined. He was just another mid-level trainer in California before finishing a close second in the 1996 Derby. Silver Charm gave Baffert national credibility and Real Quiet proved he wasn't a fluke. Point Given kept Baffert among the elite.
But four years had passed since he smelled the roses and Baffert's luster was dulling. Even Baffert wondered if his Derby fever was subsiding.
"I thought I had lost the feeling," he said. "I thought maybe I wouldn't win the Derby again. [War Emblem] brought all those feelings back."
Baffert seemed energized about returning to Pimlico yesterday. He considers the middle leg of the Triple Crown the easiest part given the enormous pressures of the Derby and potential Triple Crown championship in the Belmont.
"I just think about the excitement of having the Derby winner and going for the Preakness," Baffert said. "My parents have always wanted to go to the Preakness and they'll be there. It's less hassles in the Preakness, I mean really less hassles. It goes smooth, everybody's really relaxed. The Derby's intense, but you get to Baltimore and it's a more relaxed atmosphere. People have fun.''


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