Friday, April 30, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Churchill Downs crowd that filled up the backstretch at yesterday morning’s workout surged toward the man with the streak of silver hair. They shouted his name and tried to photograph him.

It wasn’t a movie actor or pro athlete who caused the buzz. And it wasn’t Wimbledon, the horse that was being led out to the track to prepare to run in tomorrow’s 130th Kentucky Derby.

The people were excited to get a glimpse of Bob Baffert, one of the rock stars of horse racing. Baffert is in the class of trainers who have become the faces of the sport.



“He’s doing fantastic,” Baffert said when asked about Wimbledon, who is not given much of a chance in tomorrow’s race. “He looks great. He’s very relaxed. He’s enjoying himself. Like his trainer, he’s having a good time.”

Baffert, whose horses have won three Derbys, is having a good time driving his Mercedes and checking the time on his Rolex. Racing has been very, very good to Baffert — particularly the Derby. “I wish it was held twice a year, in case you lose it,” he said as a joke to a Japanese TV crew. “This is why most of my clients are in the business, to get to the Kentucky Derby. It is a big part of my life.”

It is a big part of Nick Zito’s life as well. The trainer, who has had two Derby winners, has two horses running tomorrow — The Cliff’s Edge, one of the favorites, and Birdstone, a long shot. “The Kentucky Derby keeps getting bigger and bigger each year,” Zito said. “If you get a chance to play, it’s the most rewarding thing.”

It has been rewarding for Zito and other trainers who get a chance to strut their stuff on this international stage. Horse trainers have become the story in racing, an evolution in coverage of the sport the past 20 years, through a combination of circumstances.

There has not been a great horse — and the general public’s definition of a great horse is a Triple Crown winner — since Affirmed won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978.

Affirmed followed in Seattle Slew’s and Secretariat’s hoofsteps among the great horses of the decade. While the horse remains a focus of attention, there have been few that have captured the imagination since then, save for two last year.

One of them — Seabiscuit — hadn’t raced in more than 60 years and was the subject of a critically acclaimed movie. The other horse was Funny Cide, the long shot who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but finished third in the Belmont. When that happens, the horse, the trainer, the owners and the jockey all become “Access Hollywood” material.

Jockeys have diminished as well. There are no Eddie Arcaros or Willie Shoemakers. Not that there haven’t been great jockeys like Angel Cordero, Gary Stevens and Pat Day, who is riding Minister Eric tomorrow.

But because horse racing has lost its status among major sports, the jockeys are not mentioned the same breath as, let’s say, a Tim Duncan or Peyton Manning or Sammy Sosa when the lists of great athletes of the era are compiled. In past times, names like Shoemaker and Arcaro were on those lists.

Plus, jockeys are hired guns, and unlike trainers, jockeys are not identified with a horse until they finally win a Derby — like last year when Jose Santos rode Funny Cide to the win at Churchill Downs. Jerry Bailey will ride Wimbledon tomorrow for the first time.

Into the void stepped D. Wayne Lukas, the colorful trainer who emerged in the early 1980s to train four Derby winners and change the business of horse training in the process. Lukas, a former basketball coach, was the first trainer to step in front of the camera and begin filling up notebooks with explanations about horse training that were easy for people to understand and entertaining. His public feud with fellow trainer Woody Stephens became racing’s version of the Yankees and Red Sox.

Lukas is sitting on the sidelines for tomorrow’s race with no horse competing. He wasn’t looking for sympathy. Like Baffert and Zito, the Derby has been very, very good to Lukas.

“I’ve been so blessed in this event and had so many years in a row of running, I’d be less of a person if I were standing around here saying, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t have a Derby horse,’” he said.

There are plenty of other colorful trainers to go around. Maryland’s entry, Tapit, has English trainer Michael Dickinson, who is called “The Mad Genius.” He brought his own grass to the Bluegrass state and feeds his horse Guinness Stout (brilliant!).

Smarty Jones’ trainer, John Servis, grew up in the shadow of Charles Town, W.Va., made a name for himself at Philadelphia Park and is a small-time trainer made good.

Friends Lake trainer John Kimme grew up with a girl named Patti Scialfa in Jersey and is good friends with her husband — Bruce Springsteen.

Those rock stars have to stick together.

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