10/25/2007 11:00PM

Baffert climbing back to the top, and having fun

EmailOCEANPORT, N.J. - For pretty much anybody else, the last few years would have been just great.

But this is Bob Baffert. This is the white-haired, wise-cracking, iconic trainer who dominated Thoroughbred racing in the late 1990s while making a nonrefundable reservation for himself in the sport's Hall of Fame. This is the man who won three Kentucky Derbies and two Dubai World Cups, was voted three Eclipse Awards as top trainer, led the nation in stable earnings for four straight years, and trained seven champions.

"I raised the bar too damn high," said Baffert. "It's hard to get back to that bar, believe me."

The self-imposed standards that Baffert has failed to meet in recent years are far above the norm. Since the beginning of 2004, his horses have earned more than $26 million. But his 2005 total dipped below $6 million for the first time since 1996, and his 2007 stable earnings entering this week stood at slightly more than $4.4 million.

"At some point you get a little bitter," said Baffert, 54. "It's not as much fun anymore, and there's other stuff going on that you kind of lose that drive a little bit. In this game, you're either the bug or the windshield. You get out of the groove, and you learn."

The recent months, however, have provided Baffert with the impetus to dig out of a self-perceived rut, and when the 24th Breeders' Cup World Championships are run Saturday at Monmouth Park, he is hoping the roller-coaster syndrome so familiar to racetrack veterans will return him to the top of the game. After having a total of just four starters in the last three Breeders' Cups, all of them soundly defeated, Baffert on Saturday will send out three horses - Indian Blessing in the Juvenile Fillies, Midnight Lute in the Sprint, and Tough Tiz's Sis in the Distaff - and the mere thought of getting back into the international racing spotlight really has him pumped.

"The Breeders' Cup is like our World Series," said Baffert, who used several baseball metaphors in a lengthy recent interview. "Instead of having nine innings, it's like every race is a different inning. Whoever's good that day, that's your winner. It's all about the 'now' horse, and hopefully that's what we're bringing to New Jersey."

It has been 15 years since Baffert, a former Quarter Horse trainer, made his first major mark in the Thoroughbred business. It came in the 1992 Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park, where he saddled Thirty Slews to capture the Sprint at 18-1. Baffert was a breath of fresh air, with a laid-back and sometimes irreverent style serving as an intriguing contrast to his understated abilities as a seasoned horseman, one who grew up on an Arizona cattle ranch and had spent his entire life around horses.

But as quickly as Baffert was immersed in the halcyon days of Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Silverbulletday, and Point Given, the detractors surfaced.

At one point, Baffert had amassed perhaps the deepest roster of top-shelf clients in the world, including The Thoroughbred Corp., Golden Eagle Farm, and Bob and Beverly Lewis, and his sometimes cocky demeanor made him an easy mark in the public's age-old tendency to build up heroes just to tear them down. Some of the knocks on Baffert were that his schtick had grown stale, his vanity had obscured his charm, and he was far less endearing in the role of Goliath as he had been as David. The anti-Baffert crusade may have hit its peak when an article headlined "Why Everybody Hates Bob Baffert" appeared in the May 2003 editions of GQ magazine.

"Unfortunately, this game is about personalities and opinions, and everybody has one," said Mike Pegram, a longtime friend and client of Baffert who owned the 1998 Derby winner, Real Quiet, and is a part-owner in Midnight Lute. "But facts live forever, and opinions die. People did the same thing with Wayne Lukas, and he came back and won a bunch of big races, so at least we know they don't play favorites."

To a certain degree, the critics have gotten their wish about Baffert. His gradual slide off the mountaintop might well have begun when The Thoroughbred Corp.'s Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia died suddenly at age 43 in July 2002, only two months after War Emblem, owned by The Thoroughbred Corp. and trained by Baffert, had swept the Derby and Preakness. John Mabee, the owner of longtime California powerhouse Golden Eagle, had died in April that same year. Bob Lewis, the Los Angeles Angeles beer-distributing tycoon who owned Silver Charm and other standouts, died in February 2006.

"You can only have so many big clients," Baffert said. "Certain guys you lose, you just can't replace them. When I lost The Thoroughbred Corp., Golden Eagle, and Bob Lewis, you're talking about a huge hit."

Baffert, the fifth-leading trainer of all time with nearly $125 million in stable earnings, said the loss of major clients is similar to what happens to sports programs that lose key players through attrition or other means. "It's almost impossible to keep winning the kind of races you're used to," he said. "I'd say it takes a good three years to really come back from losses like I've had. It's a cycle kind of thing. You just have to accept that you need to regroup, go back to things you do best, and kind of start over in some ways."

Baffert said he has refocused on fundamentals and is approaching the game with newfound energy. "I'm picking out my own horses, the way I used to," he said. "Luckily I've still got Mike Pegram and Hal Earnhardt and a few new guys like Zayat Stable. It's really all about the client who has the passion, who loves the horses. They can have a lot of money, but not the passion, which is the most important thing."

Baffert is hoping he can look back sometime in the future and point to the 2007 Breeders' Cup as when he started to reemerge as a national power. Although he concedes that Tough Tiz's Sis deserves to be a longshot in a deep edition of the Distaff, his other two starters are being given serious chances to win.

Indian Blessing is the morning-line favorite for the Juvenile Fillies after having run off the television screen in her two career races, the most recent a 4 1/2-length romp in the Grade 1 Frizette. Indian Blessing, said Baffert, "jumped up to a mile in the Frizette, and you have to be a special type of filly to do that. I say she's going to love going longer, but she hasn't run two turns, and you never know until they do it."

Baffert also had a second Juvenile Fillies starter, Cry and Catch Me, but she was scratched Wednesday because of a temperature.

Midnight Lute "had been a horse with issues with his breathing, but now it looks like he's got it all together," he said. "He's filled out and changed so much. He's just a big, gorgeous horse. As a racehorse, he's extremely talented. He's always shown signs of being brilliant, and I think now he finally has a chance to show everybody something."

Tough Tiz's Sis "is a filly that is just starting to get better right now," he said. "On paper she probably has the least chance to win of any of my horses, but if she can make up a length or two, she could be right there."

Besides Thirty Slews, Baffert has won just two other Breeders' Cup events: the 1998 Juvenile Fillies with Silverbulletday and the 2002 Juvenile with Vindication. Even in his best years, the Breeders' Cup was not a particular strength, as evidenced by his overall record of 3 for 44 - he has had far more success in the Triple Crown, with eight wins. Baffert fared particularly poorly at the 1999 Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park when he went winless with eight runners, including several favorites.

"I've gone to the Breeders' Cup before with horses a little bit over the top; they've had tough campaigns," he said. "I don't think that's the case this time."

Pegram said the fact Baffert has mostly flown under the national racing radar in recent years is nothing to worry about. "You stay in this business long enough, you're going to have good times and you're going to have bad times," he said. "A whole lot of people would like to have the bad times Bobby's had, making money and winning big races. I think he's the best there is, and hopefully that will show up again Saturday. Bobby's going to be around for a long, long time."

Baffert seems particularly eager to show he's back.

"When I look back on what I've done in such a short period, it's amazing," he said. "I've spoiled myself. I did it in such a short window. The thing is, it can happen again. You have runs, you back off, you have a run. That's the way it works.

"I really feel I'm getting the momentum back. I'm working harder. I'm probably more focused. I've cut my numbers down, and I'm training for people I really enjoy training for. I'm starting to have fun again. It's why I got in the business to begin with. If you're not winning, you're not having fun."