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Baffert shows crowd his softer side
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - At the end of an emotionally charged speech, blended sweetly with humor and humility, trainer Bob Baffert summed up his feelings on being inducted Friday into the National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame.
"In racing, to end up here you have to be either really, really good, or really, really lucky," he said. "And you're lookin' at lucky."
Actually, Baffert has been both in a 30-year training career that is still going strong at the age of 56. His career-in-progress - which includes training nine champions and winning eight Triple Crown races - was honored Friday by his induction into the Hall of Fame along with steeplechase trainer Janet Elliot, jockey Eddie Maple, Thoroughbred champions Tiznow and Silverbulletday, and steeplechase horse Ben Nevis II.
A two-hour-plus ceremony was held Friday at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion across the street from Saratoga Race Course. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,000 people included 16 previous Hall of Fame inductees, including the 89-year-old trainer T.J. Kelly.
Baffert was introduced by friend and sometimes bitter rival D. Wayne Lukas, a 1999 Hall of Fame inductee who called Baffert "not only a really good friend, but an outstanding, extraordinary horseman who has really carried our banner over the years with great style and flare."
Baffert told a story of how when he was 17 years old, he sought a job as an exercise rider for Lukas, who had a string at Bay Meadows.
"To show what a great judge of talent he is, he turned me down," said Baffert, who had a short-lived riding career before turning his attention to training horses.
Baffert choked up several times during his speech, mostly when he talked about his family. Baffert's parents, Bill and Ellie, both 86, five of his six brothers and sisters, and all five of his children and his second wife, Jill, were in attendance.
"My mom has shown all of our family the meaning of courage and toughness, and I can only hope" Baffert said before becoming choked up, "that this day makes up for all those days that she was worried about me when I was young."
Baffert said his mother didn't want him riding horses for his father in match races at small tracks in Arizona.
"We had a deal where he wouldn't tell my mother I was riding match races, and I wouldn't tell her that he was drinking beer," Baffert said.
Baffert also had to stop himself when he told of how one of his owners introduced him to Mike Pegram, who would become one of Baffert's best friends and major clients.
"Hal Earnhardt introduced me to Mike Pegram, probably the best thing that ever happened," Baffert said before fighting back tears.
Not that Pegram wouldn't have been there anyway, but he did have another reason for attending Friday's ceremonies. Pegram owned the multiple champion Silverbulletday, who was inducted as the contemporary female horse. Trained by Baffert, Silverbulletday won 15 of 23 starts and banked more than $3 million.
"She put us on a magic carpet ride, took myself and my family to 10 racetracks over 26 months, and it was just fabulous," Pegram said. "Had a good friend tell me this: Opinions die, facts live forever. Well, in this sport, there's a lot of opinions - we all know that - with this induction today the fact will always remain that Silverbulletday is one of the greatest fillies of all time."
For 14 years, it was some people's opinion that Eddie Maple, he of 4,398 winners, was not Hall of Fame-worthy. Initially on the ballot in 1995, Maple, 60, finally made it in on his seventh try this year.
"I'd like to think of when I was riding I had a pretty good sense of timing. I was a patient jockey, I knew I had to wait," said Maple, who was introduced by longtime friend and broadcaster Charlsie Cantey. "But those 14 years waiting for this were . . . "
Maple thanked many people responsible for his success, including the late Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens, who put him on several major stakes winners, including the 1985 Belmont winner, Creme Fraiche.
"Woody used to say, 'Eddie, if you want to be a big flea, you got to ride a big dog,' " Maple said.
It got no bigger than Secretariat, whom Maple, at age 24, rode to victory in the Canadian International, the last race of the legendary colt's career. Maple recalled an interview he did a week before the race when a reporter asked what if Secretariat got beat.
"I said, 'I never really think about losing,' " Maple said. "He said 'Well, if you do you might want to think about staying in Canada.' "
On the 20th anniversary of his induction into the Hall of Fame, jockey Chris McCarron gave the keynote speech. McCarron noted that he had ridden 12 horses who had been inducted into the Hall of Fame. That included Tiznow, whom McCarron rode to back-to-back victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Tiznow remains the only horse to have accomplished that feat.
Pamela Ziebarth, the daughter of the late Cecilia Straub-Rubens - part-owner of Tiznow - accepted the plaque, which was presented by former Breeders' Cup chief executive D.G. Van Clief. Straub-Rubens died three days after Tiznow's 2000 Breeders' Cup victory.
"Tiznow was such a special gift to all of us," Ziebarth said. "There isn't a day that goes by we don't think of [Straub-Rubens] and relish the moments we had together."
Janet Elliot became the first female trainer inducted into the Hall of Fame. Her plaque was presented by Jonathan Sheppard, who also presented Julie Krone - the other female in the Hall of Fame - with her plaque back in 2000.
Elliot worked as an assistant to Sheppard for about 10 years before going out on her own. Elliot trained three Eclipse Award winners and ranks third on the all-time earnings list for steeplechase trainers.
"It was my passion," Elliot, 60, said of being around horses beginning at a young age. "I had no idea it would be my life."
Ben Nevis II, who won all his starts in the U.S. as well as the English Grand National at Aintree, became the 16th steeplechase horse to be elected into the Hall of Fame.