04/28/2003 11:00PM

A Baffert sweep unlikely

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Four years ago, when Bob Baffert held the strongest hand going into both the Kentucky Oaks and Derby, he was confident he would become the first trainer since 1952 to sweep both Churchill Downs classics.

Baffert nailed the first half of that elusive double when Silverbulletday captured the 1999 Oaks as the heavy favorite, but missed the second half when his favored entry of Excellent Meeting and General Challenge finished fifth and 11th behind Charismatic.

"I really thought we were going to get both," Baffert recalled.

This year, in just his third attempt at the Oaks - he also saddled third-place finisher Habibti last year - Baffert would gladly settle for a win in either race. After having as many as four potential Derby starters just a week or so ago, Baffert is down to the lightly raced Indian Express as his lone Derby starter. His chances clearly are stronger going into Friday's Oaks, in which he will run the uncoupled duo of Santa Catarina and Atlantic Ocean.

Santa Catarina probably is the more well regarded of the two. Even Baffert concedes that early last year, "we actually thought she was our best filly," a rather bold pronouncement considering the way that another of his 3-year-old fillies, Composure, developed into a potential superstar before she was injured and retired in March.

Santa Catarina, owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, came to hand at Del Mar last summer when she won a maiden race by eight lengths, then finished a close second in the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante. Baffert said that after leaving Del Mar, however, she failed to progress to his satisfaction, even though she ran respectably in back-to-back defeats in the Frizette and Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"She sort of tailed off on me a little bit and I wanted to freshen her up before we got going again this year," said Baffert. "I wanted to let her mature. She's a slight filly who just needed time. It's been more a mental thing with her than anything."

Santa Catarina, by Unbridled, has raced just once this year, easily winning a March 12 allowance against five overmatched rivals at Santa Anita. Baffert said he could have squeezed in one more prep race before the Oaks, but, "I really didn't want to ship anywhere, and I thought she would do okay just training up to this."

Atlantic Ocean, owned by The Thoroughbred Corporation, already has raced 11 times, the most starts (along with longshot In Case of Wind) of anyone in the 12-horse field. Baffert said that after disappointing efforts in the Breeders' Cup at Arlington and the Moccasin at Hollywood, Atlantic Ocean "started coming back around," and she won three races in a row.

In her last race, Atlantic Ocean was a well-beaten second behind another top Oaks contender, Lady Tak, in the March 8 Fair Grounds Oaks. Baffert said jockey David Flores told him Atlantic Ocean "was kind of slipping around" in that race.

"She's a good filly," said Baffert. "Both she and Santa Catarina have been training great over this track. I really like the way they're both starting to put everything together."

Baffert is the only trainer with a horse in both the Oaks and Derby this year, meaning he is the only one with a chance for an Oaks-Derby double. Even he would concede that the odds are very much stacked against him, and that the rare feat most recently accomplished in 1952 by the legendary Ben Jones - he won the Oaks with Real Delight and the Derby with Hill Gail - will remain an intact target for trainers for next year.

Baffert could complete another type of double for either of the owners for whom he will run a filly in the Oaks on Friday. Baffert won the 1997 Derby with Silver Charm for the Lewises and the 2002 Derby for The Thoroughbred Corp. The last owner-trainer team to win both races was Overbrook Farm and D. Wayne Lukas, with Seaside Attraction in the 1990 Oaks and Grindstone in the 1996 Derby.

"We're going to be in there trying," said Baffert. "I think both of my fillies are going to run really good races."