Column: Baffert's silence could speak volumes

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By JIM LITKE, Associated Press

BALTIMORE (AP) — One good thing about losing the Kentucky Derby is that nobody wants much of your time for two solid weeks.

Bob Baffert's countdown still had 36 hours or so left to run Friday morning when the silver-tongued Hall of Fame trainer stepped outside his barn at Pimlico Race Course and looked at the grandstand looming in the distance.

"I don't really get charged up until we walk over there Saturday afternoon," Baffert said. "That's when it really becomes the Preakness to me."

He's won the race five times in 11 tries, three of those with the Kentucky Derby winner in his barn and twice with spoilers, who have history on their side. Only 32 horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in the 130-plus times both races have been run, yet Baffert had three of those, only to lose each time in the Belmont Stakes.

That won't be a problem this year, since rival California trainer Doug O'Neill's bay colt, I'll Have Another, ran down Baffert's Bodemeister in the final few strides at Churchill Downs two weeks ago.

"When you come in with the Derby winner, you're on such a high that if things don't go your way, you still feel like, 'No big deal,'" Baffert recalled. "On the other hand, if you come in here still thinking you should have won (the Derby), at least you know you're going to get a better trip. There's fewer horses and a lot less racing luck involved."

Pimlico handicapper Frank Carulli apparently felt the same way, making Bodemeister the morning-line 8-5 favorite over I'll Have Another, the second choice at 5-2.

"That a lot of respect in my mind," said O'Neill, who's enjoyed his turn in the sport's spotlight. "If you would have said a few years ago, 'Hey, would you feel respected if you're 5-2 in the Preakness?' I would have said, 'Sign me up.' "

O'Neill's willingness to mix it up was apparent when he made the drive from Louisville right after the Derby. Baffert said that after the blistering pace Bodemeister set in that race, he expected to find little left of his horse besides "hair and lactic acid."

No wonder. Bodemeister's opening half-mile of 45.39 seconds was the fifth-fastest in Derby history, and none of the four horses with faster splits finished better than 13th. Only two went on to run in the Preakness, with Top Avenger finishing last in 1981 and Groovy finishing sixth of seven horses in 1986.

Even so, Baffert didn't seem overly concerned.

"The horse is deceiving. He will fool you. I think Mike (Smith, his jockey) didn't realize he was going 45. If they didn't have a clock there," Baffert added, "I would have thought he was going 47."

Most handicappers have cast the Preakness as a two-horse race. Because there won't be a crowded field nor any speed horses to hem Bodemeister in, O'Neill was inclined to agree. Though I'll Have Another didn't make his move until the horses turned for home in the 1 1/4-mile Derby, his trainer isn't inclined to let Bodemeister get loose on the lead at the 1 1/16-mile Preakness.

"If somebody gets an easy lead, I want it to be us," O'Neill said. "If we're sitting behind, I want it to be a pretty heated pace. Those are the two scenarios I'd like to see."

Baffert claims not to have thought the race through that far.

"I just can't map out a strategy. If he came from off the pace, I'd map out a strategy, you know, 'Mike, you need to do this, this and this.' But his strategy is just to break well and keep him in a comfortable mode.

"He knows what to do," Baffert said, referring to his jockey or his horse or maybe both.

A moment later, Bode, the youngest of Baffert's kids and Bodemeister's namesake, came running out of the barn, puncturing the relative silence with laughs. Baffert watched the scene and smiled ruefully.

"It's been quiet all week. Every time I brought the loser of the Derby here and won, it's been really quiet all week. ... He just got here," Baffert said, referring to the boy, "and he doesn't like the pressure of being asked about Bodemeister too much. When the horse got beat, he took it a little bit like it's his horse.

"I didn't want him to be mad at me, that I didn't do a good job training his horse or anything. He's funny about that," Baffert said, lowering his voice.

After a week of not saying too much, Baffert wasn't about to tempt fate now.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke

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