Horse racing: At Preakness, itís Baffertís show
By Bill Dwyre
Los Angeles Times
BALTIMOREóThe 135th running of the Preakness on Saturday can be summed up in three sentences:
The winner's name finally matched his result.
Showtime returned to horse racing, and that had nothing to do with the Los Angeles Lakers and Magic Johnson.
For the 32nd year in a row, the Triple Crown became a split series, not a special pursuit.
When Lookin At Lucky turned for home and held off all comers, under a perfect ride from 25-year-old newcomer Martin Garcia, the horse had finally overcome his run of black cats and short straws. It was almost as if some higher power had been insulted by his naming and was showing Lookin At Lucky that he wasn't going to be.
He had won six of nine starts, but in three previous ones that counted the most, he apparently walked under a ladder the day before. In the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October, he got a terrible trip and finished second. In the important Kentucky Derby prep in April, the Santa Anita Derby, he and his jockey, Garrett Gomez, did more bumping than running near the rail with another horse while Sidney's Candy ran home first. And in the Kentucky Derby, he drew the No. 1 pole position and was hit by a landslide of horses from the outside on the break, heading down to the rail.
"It looked like a hockey game," said Bob Baffert, Lookin At Lucky's trainer. "He kept getting checked into the boards."
Finally, Saturday, the sun shined on a Preakness Day crowd of 95,760 and the horse with the four-leaf-clover name. He drew the seventh post, Baffert changed jockeys from Gomez to Garcia, as much for a change in fortune than any indictment of Gomez, and his class showed.
"This was a different kind of win," Baffert said. "This was more of a redemption win."
It also was the return of the showman.
Baffert, the man with the unmistakable white hair and undeniable quick quips, hasn't been on the huge stage with the brightest lights for eight years. That's when he last won a Triple Crown race, the 2002 Kentucky Derby, with War Emblem. He started to feel it earlier this year with a victory by his Misremembered in the Santa Anita Handicap. But as big as that race is, there is nothing like the Triple Crown.
"I like being back here, talking to you guys," he said. "It's been a long time."
Racing needs the personality of a Baffert and the power of a Triple Crown campaign. It got half of that Saturday. In another life, Baffert would do bit parts on "Seinfeld." Mostly, he loves winning. A close second is having a working microphone nearby. Cameras turn on and Baffert lights up. It's not phony. It's just him. When he wins one of these big ones, writers and broadcasters look heavenward in thanks and the producers in the network TV trucks sob tears of joy.
Baffert, the anti-Bob Knight, dominated the postrace as much as his horse did the race.
He said he made Garcia his student, teaching him race by race.
"I'm going to adopt him, have him move in with me," Baffert said. "He can watch Bode (Baffert's 3-year-old son). We'll make a movie. 'Blind Side 2."'
He said he had been telling one of the three owners of the horse, his drinking buddy, Mike Pegram, that Lookin At Lucky had been training especially well these two weeks since the Kentucky Derby.
"I told Mike to keep it quiet, real quiet," Baffert said, scanning the room for reaction. Real Quiet, of course, was his Pegram horse that missed a Triple Crown in 1998 by a nose hair.
Baffert joked that Garcia, who was working in a deli five years ago and had no idea what a Kentucky Derby or a Preakness was when he started riding, was clueless about what he had just done.
"I want to see you cry, or something," Baffert said.
The other two owners, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, praised their relationship with Baffert and said they have, with him, purchased many successful horses.
"And some gutter balls," Baffert mumbled.
Baffert's gleeful mood was predictable and understandable. The recent Hall of Fame electee had gone 0-11 in Triple Crown victory attempts since War Emblem. In Preakness starts, he is five for 11, and his victory Saturday bodes well for whatever horse he brings next year, since the tendency is two-year victory spurts. He won in 1997 with Silver Charm and in '98 with Real Quiet, then again in 2001 with Point Given and in '02 with War Emblem.
The downside of the day for racing fans was that, again, there will be no Triple Crown winner. The only horse with a shot, Super Saver, turned out to be mortal, as many suspected, including the morning-line oddsmaker, who made him a lukewarm 5-2 first choice. He finished eighth, after jockey Calvin Borel asked him to fire on the turn, got him into second and then saw him fade badly on the stretch.
The last Triple Crown champion was Affirmed in 1978. Garcia wasn't even born.
Baffert was only 25 and just beginning to work on his one-liners.