04/30/2007 11:00PM

Baffert barn sporting an older look

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The first Saturday in May is quickly approaching, and once again Bob Baffert is loaded with promising male horses. Unfortunately for the Kentucky Derby-obsessed Baffert, his barn is full of 4- and 5-year-olds and not 3-year-old stars.

For Saturday's $150,000 Mervyn LeRoy Handicap for older horses at Hollywood Park, Baffert has five of the 18 nominees. As of Tuesday, he intended to run at least one, Wanna Runner, who was briefly on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2006.

A three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, Baffert said his lack of involvement in this year's Derby is discouraging.

Baffert does have a runner at Churchill Downs on Saturday - Pussycat Doll in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. His stable failed to produce a meaningful Triple Crown candidate this year. For example, Baffert did not have a runner in the Santa Anita Derby last month.

"I went through a week of Derby blues a few weeks ago," he said. "But I'm okay now. It's on to next year."

Wanna Runner did not start in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, but did win the Lone Star Derby last May. The race is his most recent win. He followed the Lone Star Derby with a 10th-place finish in the Queen's Plate at Woodbine and a sixth in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park last August

Owned by Mike Pegram, Wanna Runner has not started since last summer, but he has worked well at Hollywood Park in recent weeks.

"He just went off form, and we couldn't figure out where he was," Baffert said.

Baffert's other nominees for the Mervyn LeRoy are Backus, C'Mon Tiger, Chips are Down, and Tice. Chips are Down was entered in an allowance race on Tuesday. The others may start in allowance races soon.

"I've been trying to save my horses for later," he said. "I want to run all summer long in the older-horse races."

Wanna Runner will need to be ready for his comeback. The Mervyn LeRoy field is expected to include Molengao, the runner-up in the Santa Anita Handicap, and Buzzards Bay, the winner of the 2006 Oaklawn Handicap who has not started since last June.

As for his 3-year-olds, Baffert is still hopeful that Air Commander can make an impact this year. Air Commander was second to Cobalt Blue in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 17.

"He's in light training," Baffert said. "He'll be ready for the summer and fall."

Hines has emotions on display

The nose loss by C.T. Zee in Sunday's $250,000 Snow Chief Stakes at Hollywood Park left losing trainer Nick Hines in tears. The TVG network caught his response to the stretch run between race winner Leesider and C.T. Zee for all to see.

Tuesday morning, while overseeing is 23-horse stable at Hollywood Park, Hines reflected on the race, and his reaction, which only added to his reputation as a racetrack character.

"It was the most emotional race of my career," he said. "I think people misunderstood the feeling. It wasn't for me, it was for the horse."

Hines's emotions are always on the surface. After many of his wins, he has been known to hoop and holler all the way to the winner's circle, grabbing anyone and everyone along the way in bear-hugs and kisses - men, too.

The brash celebration has chafed some buttoned-down observers and made Hines an easy target for criticism. That started before he began working as a part-time commentator for TVG, offering perspective on Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing.

"If I have something to say, I'll say it," Hines said. "But my bark is worse than my bite."

Hines's barn does not have many stakes-caliber horses, which made the loss by C.T. Zee even harder to take, he said.

Owned by a partnership that includes breeder John Harris, C.T. Zee was making his third start in the Snow Chief Stakes, which was restricted California-bred 3-year-olds. C.T. Zee had won a $75,000 claiming race for maidens at Santa Anita on Feb. 1, in his first start around two turns.

In the Snow Chief Stakes, C.T. Zee led by a length on the final turn and a half-length in midstretch before losing by a nose to Leesider. The pair ran 1 1/8 miles in a slow 1:52.31, but it was still an exciting race.

"It went from the agony of the defeat to the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat again," Hines said.

Hines says that C.T. Zee is recovering from his grueling performance. Hines is looking to start C.T. Zee in an allowance race in about a month.

"To be 6-5 is one thing, but we were nearly 20-1," he said. "We felt we couldn't hit the board. The training got him to the eighth pole. His heart took him from the eighth pole to the wire."