03/07/2010 7:34PM

Ladies' Day


Wanted: First Lady of California Horse Racing

Job Description: Give flesh and blood to the fantasy that the sport is run by something other than floundering guys in suits and ties.

Qualifications: The grace of Barbara Walter. The energy of Trudy McCaffery. The indomitability of Marje Everett. The passion of Susan Rowan.

Laden as it is with testosterone, horse racing has never been a comfortable place for talented women to flourish. Right now, the California's most influential handful among the majority gender include Marsha Naify and Madeline Auerbach (chairman and vice-chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California), Marie Moretti (director of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club), Leigh Ann Howard (president of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association) and Bo Derek (California Horse Racing Board commissioner), along with trainers Carla Gaines, Kathy Walsh and Jenine Sahadi.

Sahadi is also president of the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation, which provides scholarships for the children of backstretch workers. In addition, the head of every reputable California rehabilitation and retirement organization for former Thoroughbred racehorses is a woman. The idea that these more benevolently oriented roles are only suited to women, or that men need not apply, is patently ridiculous. It only looks that way, and will continue to look that way, as long as most of the choice seats of influence are occupied by men.

Take note: There are two key job openings right now in the California sport, the well-salaried and potentially influential executive director positions for both the TOC and the California Thoroughbred Trainers (CTT). If either one of those spots is filled by a woman, I shall personally stop the presses.

At any rate, it was refreshing to see two women step up at Santa Anita last Saturday in a big way. Jill Baffert, wife of the trainer of the same name, joined a distinguished list of women who have owned the winner of the Santa Anita Handicap with the victory of Misremembered (also owned in part by family friend George Jacobs), while earlier on the card, trainer Alexis Barba swept both major events for 3-year-old colts by taking the Pasadena Stakes on the grass with Make Music for Me and the Sham Stakes on the main track with Alphie's Bet.

Bob Baffert casts a long and mighty shadow, so you've got to hand it to Mrs. B. to be able to step out from behind her Hall of Fame husband to lay claim to such a noteworthy accomplishment. Misremembered is hardly a backyard project--even though I'm sure the Bafferts have a very nice backyard--but neither has he been coddled and marketed like a corporate asset. And while the breeding line officially says Bob Baffert, Misremembered is a family project all the way, and he earned his shot in the Santa Anita Handicap with a series of good races that put him on the threshold of a big effort to defeat the onrushing Neko Bay.

If the trainer is smart, and the game is lucky, the co-owner will do all the talking for Misremembered as his career unfolds. Jill Baffert is quick and mordantly funny in a "don't mess with Tennessee" kind of way, with charm and communication skills cultivated in the chatty world of local Kentucky television news. Sure, I know, Bobby B. is the king of the one-liners and self-deprecating quotes, sent by a stranger power to rescue lazy journalists desperate for a hook. But this can be a whole new act now, with Bob and Jill and their colt playing the crowd like racing's version of Will & Grace, or Abbott and Costello. It might not help the handle, but at least it could be fun.

Eddie2ben As for Alexis Barba, the newest West Coast power player on the Triple Crown trail, her two winners Saturday matched her total for the year, proving that good horses can come from anywhere as long as there is a trainer like Barba involved. Trevor Denman had some trouble recollecting the pronunciation of her first name--it came out Alexi--while various HRTVoices insisted her last name was "Barbee," hopefully confusing it with the infamous Klaus rather than the plastic, anatomically daunting doll.

Californians respect and, for better or worse, will always think of Barba as the longtime assistant to the late Eddie Gregson, whose suicide in June of 2000 scrambled the psyches of anyone who spent significant time close to the white-hot flame of his intense personality. Barba was given a chance by a couple of Gregson's loyal clients, but that did not work out, and she has plugged along anyway, refusing to yield. Now, for patrons Ellen and Peter Johnson, Barba has come up with a pair of young aces. How far they'll go is anyone's guess--this far has been pretty good--but if the lessons of Gregson have lasted, they won't go where they don't belong. Barba had a ringside seat when Eddie gave up a nice colt named Icy Groom because the owner refused to heed Gregson's warning not to run in the Kentucky Derby. And it was Gregson who proclaimed, in the moments after he sent out Gato del Sol to win the 1982 Derby, that the colt would skip the Preakness and aim instead for the Belmont Stakes.

Such blasphemy tends to inform the deepest thoughts of California horsemen, who know they should want to win the Kentucky Derby more than life itself, but sometimes wonder about the cost. Barba was not looking much beyond Monday with either Make Music for Me, a son of Bernstein, or Alphie's Bet, a son of Tribal Rule who is owned in part by his breeder, Teresa McWilliams (both young stallions are by Storm Cat, while Gregson trained Candi's Gold, the damsire of Alphie's Bet). They will run somewhere serious next, and then a decision can be made.

"I more concerned that I wore this ugly thing today," Barba said, opening her overcoat to display a stylish black Indian kurta with some silvery neckline trim. "I got it in Dubai, when I went there for a friend's wedding, and I can't believe I let myself be talked into buying it. I guess it's my lucky outfit now."

She sounded just like a girl, and it sounded great.