03/12/2010 12:00AM

Baffert mellower, but still having fun

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Barbara D. Livingston
Friends say Baffert has "gotten more humble as he's gotten older and his stature in the business has been raised." He made the Hall of Fame last year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - He's still the fastest pun in the West, quick with a laugh-out-loud one-liner, and that shock of white hair makes Bob Baffert the most recognizable figure in racing, someone who gets shout-outs from fans at Lakers games, and jets on up to Vancouver to watch his pal Bode Miller ski in the Olympics.

But in the past year, close friends have noticed a change in Baffert. Could it be that, at age 57, Baffert is actually growing up? He initially sloughs off the suggestion, saying good horses - like Eclipse Award winner Lookin At Lucky, who is scheduled to make his 2010 debut on Saturday in the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park - have made him less anxious, but upon further review, gets reflective.

"I don't know what it is," he said Wednesday morning at Santa Anita, just after his second-best Kentucky Derby prospect, Conveyance, worked six furlongs. "I don't get worked up over nothing. I'm getting older. I still like to be silly. The main thing is, I got my business built back up. Great clients. Good horses. There's nothing worse than trying to make something happen and it's just not there."

Baffert was voted into the Hall of Fame last year. That, say friends like George Jacobs - who co-owns Santa Anita Handicap winner Misremembered - and jockey agent Ron Anderson, was the moment when Baffert began his metamorphosis.

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"Maybe he realized how much respect he has," Anderson said. "He's one of the ones. Year after year he comes with a good 3-year-old for the Derby. His Breeders' Cup record is quite good. He's gotten more humble as he's gotten older and his stature in the business has been raised."

"He's got a different attitude," said Jacobs, who owns Misremembered with Baffert's wife, Jill. "He's more mellow. He's more confident in his standing in the sport. You know what else helps? He's got a lot of good horses."

The Hall of Fame clearly meant a lot to Baffert. He became quite emotional when making his acceptance speech because his parents were in the audience. Baffert was to take a private jet to Arkansas this week so he could stop en route in Arizona and visit his parents.

"It took a while, but now when they say 'Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert,' it feels good," he said. "It meant the most to me because of my parents. It didn't hit me until I got up on stage, and then when my parents stood up, and my kids, I got all emotional."

Baffert is on his second marriage. He had four kids - now high school age or older - with his first wife, Sherry. Jacobs said Baffert's relationship with his 5-year-old son Bode - named for the skier - has given the trainer a better perspective on life.

"He's like me in that he had kids when he was young," said Jacobs, who also is on his second marriage. "But you don't know what you're missing until you get older. You're busy working and trying to buy a house and trying to make money. He gets to enjoy Bode. Bode's his life."

That said, behind all the joking, Baffert is still intensely competitive. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times, but not since 2002. Lookin At Lucky and Conveyance - who is headed to the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby on March 28 - are his two best chances right now, though he still hopes Concord Point, The Program, and Tiz Chrome can step up.

Lookin At Lucky has not raced since winning the CashCall Futurity in December at Hollywood Park. In the Rebel, he will be making his first start on dirt.

"If this track was dirt," Baffert said, referring to Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface, "I would leave him here. On dirt, the fastest horse wins. On synthetic, you have to like it. I know what he can do here. I want to see what he can do on dirt.

"It's exciting. I like watching him run. It's like putting skis on Bode Miller and watching him go downhill."

Conveyance is unbeaten, but has yet to generate the kind of buzz usually associated with an undefeated, multiple-stakes-winning 3-year-old in the spring.

"He's a serious horse," Baffert said. "A really good horse. He's always been a good-looking horse since the day I got him. Brian Rice broke him and said he was the best one on the farm. I think nobody's jumped on his bandwagon because he's got speed, and he's by Indian Charlie. But he's brilliant, like Holy Bull. When he gets on dirt, holy moley, he really excels.

"On dirt, the fastest horse wins, and that's why I think Lookin At Lucky will move way up on it."

In other Derby developments:

* Though it has the lowest purse of the three graded stakes for 3-year-olds on Saturday, the Grade 2, $150,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita came up quite tough, with Derby Watch members American Lion, Caracortado, Dave in Dixie, and Sidney's Candy among seven entered on Wednesday in the 1 1/16-mile race.

* The Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby, also at 1 1/16 miles, also drew a field of seven when entries were taken on Wednesday, including Super Saver, Uptowncharlybrown, and the up-and-coming Odysseus.

WHO'S HOT

Alexis Barba trains just six horses, but two of them are Alphie's Bet and Make Music for Me, who won stakes races last Saturday at Santa Anita to move into the top 20 of Derby Watch. Pasadena winner Make Music for Me is 25-1 on the Kentucky Derby future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Alphie's Bet, the winner of the Sham Stakes, is 40-1. The other newcomer this week is Awesome Act, who was an impressive winner of the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in his dirt debut.

WHO'S NOT

Three horses were dropped from the list - D' Funnybone, Tiz Chrome, and Vale of York.

D' Funnybone's ability to handle two turns is still in question, and will not be answered if he goes, as expected, in the Swale at Gulfstream next week. Tiz Chrome has had a training setback that forced him to miss the San Felipe this Saturday at Santa Anita. Vale of York was not a threat in his 2010 debut last week in Dubai.

ON THE BUBBLE

Odysseus has been on the doorstep for weeks and can move onto the list should he win the Grade 3, $300,000 Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday. Also just missing the cut this week was Mendip, the winner of the Al Bastakiya in Dubai last week against Vale of York.