09/05/2004 11:00PM

Baffert: Streak over, dreams remain

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DEL MAR, Calif. - For seven straight years, Bob Baffert has led the trainers standings at Del Mar, but that record-equaling streak will come to an end this season. But as far as Baffert is concerned, this season has been far more productive than last year, when he led the standings but saw his record-setting streak in the Del Mar Futurity come to an end.

From 1996 through 2002, Baffert won the closing-day Del Mar Futurity seven straight times. He had an embarrassment of riches in 2002, when he started five runners in the race and swept the first four spots. But Baffert left here with a hollow feeling last year, despite winning more races than anyone else, and tying Farrell Jones (1960-66) with seven consecutive Del Mar training titles.

"For me, the meet here depends on my 2-year-olds," Baffert said. "I was never so depressed as last year. I just didn't have the stock. I knew I was in trouble.

"It was a bad meet. The only stake I won was with Dirty Diana," he said, referring to a filly who won the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Stakes. "This meet is better than last year."

Baffert will finish third in the standings, but he will have started fewer than 90 runners this summer, compared to 121 last year.

"I'm probably down on starts because they run so many claiming races," Baffert said. "But I'm doing better with 2-year-olds because I got some of my horses ready earlier this year by running a few of them at Hollywood. Last year, I didn't have the horsepower."

He does this time. Baffert has the most exciting 2-year-old colt on the West Coast in Roman Ruler, who has won both of his starts in breathtaking fashion and will be a heavy favorite in Wednesday's Del Mar Futurity.

"We're going to start a new streak," Baffert said.

Baffert has supreme confidence in Roman Ruler, and for good reason. Roman Ruler rallied powerfully to win his debut at Hollywood Park, then showed both quickness and athleticism to dodge a fallen rival while closing powerfully to win Del Mar's Best Pal Stakes on Aug. 15.

He came back to work effortlessly on Saturday morning. Roman Ruler was credited with a half-mile work, though he worked five furlongs while traveling out to the seven-furlong pole.

"He has brilliance," Baffert said. "Officer had it, Point Given, Vindication. It's the kind where you go, 'Wow, I can't believe he did that.' When he works, he pulls up like it was nothing."

Roman Ruler is from the first crop of Fusaichi Pegasus, the 2000 Kentucky Derby winner. Baffert purchased him on behalf of the Fog City Stable of Bill Bianco and David Shimmon for $500,000 at last year's Keeneland September yearling sale.

"I like looking at first-crop sires," Baffert said. "There weren't a lot of Fu Pegs that I really liked at the summer sales. I came to him. He has a beautiful body, but he had some issues.

"He didn't vet out completely. But the issues were things I could deal with," Baffert said, citing Roman Ruler's feet. "I went back to my old school of buying the runner and hope he stays together. I've bought a lot of perfect ones, and they can't run."

Roman Ruler has long pasterns, a trait passed on from his sire. "I didn't like his sire as a yearling because of his pasterns," Baffert said.

Roman Ruler was the subject of a racetrack rumor that spread like a wildfire from coast to coast in the days following the Best Pal. The word was that Roman Ruler had injured a tendon. Baffert denied it. He now theorizes that an overeager person espied the wrong horse in the receiving barn after the race, because Best Pal runner-up Actxecutive, also trained by Baffert, rapped the outside of a tendon in that race, Baffert said.

Baffert thought Roman Ruler would bring $750,000 to $1 million at auction. Getting him for $500,000, "I thought was a hell of a deal," he said.

Roman Ruler last fall was sent to the Ocala, Fla., farm of J.B. and Kevin McKathan, where he was broken to saddle. "I went to see him in February," Baffert said. "You always know when you have a superstar on the farm. We breezed a lot of them a quarter-mile. I said, 'Man, wow,' and put him on a plane out here a week later. I told the Fog City people, 'I think we got really lucky here.' "

Roman Ruler has displayed some of his sire's quirky temperament. "He's got a pretty good mind. He just likes to play around a little," Baffert said.

One morning two weeks ago, he fell to his side and injured his regular exercise rider, Dana Barnes. But, as with Fusaichi Pegasus, Roman Ruler's raw talent can overcome all obstacles.