Trainer Bob Baffert is back in the saddle again at the Kentucky Derby with the two hottest horses in this year's race.
By BRANT JAMES
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001
Last May was an odd time for Bob Baffert. Arguably the most popular, easily the most recognizable figure in horse racing, he stood on the periphery of the Kentucky Derby glare to which he had become so accustomed.
Fusaichi Pegasus mania had overwhelmed the sport, and the best Baffert could offer to counter the craze was Captain Steve, a colt with an interesting story but no hope of winning Baffert a third Kentucky Derby. (The horse finished eighth.)
Horse racing's national profile is increased when Baffert is a serious player in the Triple Crown mix.
"There's no denying we build up the names of the trainers as well as the horses and jockeys," said Jim McKay, who has broadcast 26 Kentucky Derbys. "They become national figures with name recognition, more instantly because the horses change every year.
"There's no question someone like a Baffert has marquee value."
A year after being relegated to the sidebars, the slick-talking Baffert is back in the center of attention after unloading into Barn 33 the two hottest picks in the 127th Derby -- Point Given and Congaree.
Baffert knows he's back in business, the business he cares about most -- the Kentucky Derby.
"I've got Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in the barn," said Baffert, who won the Derby with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998). "That's what they are. One of them is going to pass the ball to the other one, but I don't know which one it is."
Neither provided any clues Monday, each scorching five furlongs in 58 1/5 seconds.
"On paper, if you give the edge, you'd have to give it to Point Given," Baffert said. "Because he's been battle-tested. You know, he's been through it all. We don't know what Congaree's going to do under those circumstances. But Congaree is just as talented as Point Given.
"I know one thing. Today, they would run one-two, and I don't know which one."
Point Given is the more proven of the pair, although he has only raced twice as a 3-year-old. The booming chestnut began his Derby campaign with a 21/4-length victory in the March 17 San Felipe (Grade II) at Santa Anita, then ran off with the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (Grade I) by 51/2 lengths.
"The last time I felt this positive going to Kentucky was with Winning Colors," said Point Given jockey Gary Stevens, who has won the Derby three times, most recently with Silver Charm in 1997.
Congaree has raced four times -- once in stakes competition -- but became credible with a 23/4-length victory in the Wood Memorial (Grade II) April 14 at Aqueduct.
The son of Arazi also is benefitting from recent Baffert history. The trainer compares him physically to Indian Charlie, the 1998 Derby favorite that finished third to Real Quiet. Real Quiet entered the race in the shadow of Indian Charlie but gave Baffert his second Derby victory.
"Congaree reminds me of Indian Charlie, where they have that really instant speed," Baffert said. "But Indian Charlie didn't like this track. Congaree does."
So does Baffert. He has been a celebrity around Louisville since he brought Cavonnier in for a second-place finish in 1996, and he enjoys the trappings of his fame. Rarely does he need a reservation at a restaurant, and when he does dine out, he can often pull his loaner Jaguar into a parking space with his name stenciled on it.
"It does have its benefits," Baffert said.
He has had occasion to consider that fame this week because D. Wayne Lukas, a chief rival, apparently will have his run of 20 consecutive Derbys end.
"The Derby streak ... it just shows the caliber of horses he's had ... that he's been tough," Baffert said. "If I go 20 years that means that I've got some good people behind me, I've got some quality owners and everything else.
"You just never know where that next one is going to come from."
-- Information from Times wires contributed to this report.
For information about the Kentucky Derby, check out these Web sites:
WHEN: 6:04 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
TV: Ch. 8