10/13/2011 11:52AM

Breeders' Cup: Baffert loads up for big run

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Bob Baffert could have a career-high nine starters in the Breeders’ Cup. Fourth on the all-time list with seven wins, he has been shut out the last two years.

ARCADIA, Calif. − Adorning the exterior walls of trainer Bob Baffert’s headquarters in Santa Anita are hand-painted wooden signs honoring the stable’s champions and major stakes winners.

Outside of one of his two barns, a large sign lists Baffert’s 15 champions, and another honors 2002 Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem. A group of signs around the corner of the same barn notes his five winners of the Preakness Stakes. About 40 feet away, spread across different walls outside of another barn near Baffert’s office, there are signs commemorating his 2001 Horse of the Year, Point Given; his first two Kentucky Derby winners, Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998); his two Dubai World Cup winners; and his seven Breeders’ Cup winners.

The section reserved for the Breeders’ Cup winners is one Baffert admits needs an update.

“It’s all about adding signs,” Baffert, 58, said on a recent weekend morning. “These signs are getting a little outdated.”

Baffert has won seven Breeders’ Cup races from 57 starters, among the many accomplishments that led to his Hall of Fame induction in 2009, but he has not won at the event since 2008.

As the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4-5 draws closer, he is forming what could be his biggest team ever. At the beginning of the week, Baffert had nine hopefuls: Game On Dude for the Classic; Euroears and The Factor for the Sprint; Irish Gypsy for the Filly and Mare Sprint; Irrefutable for the Dirt Mile; Secret Circle for the Juvenile or Juvenile Sprint; Candrea for the Juvenile Fillies; Drill for the Juvenile; and Plum Pretty for the Ladies’ Classic.

If they all go to Kentucky, Baffert will have even more Breeders’ Cup starters than in 1999, when he had eight runners at Gulfstream Park and got second-place finishes with Chilukki in the Juvenile Fillies and Tuzla in the Mile.

“Nine?” Baffert said. “I’d better get nine spots on the plane.”

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Baffert approaches the Breeders’ Cup amid one of his most successful seasons in recent years. Through Sunday, his stable had won 106 races and earned $11,046,793. He ranked third on the national list behind Todd Pletcher ($14,726,719) and Steve Asmussen ($11,450,755). By comparison, Baffert’s stable earned $11,103,463 in 2010, the first time it had cracked the eight-figure barrier since the barn earned $12,029,115 in 2002.

Baffert has won 26 graded stakes this year, including nine Grade 1’s. Game On Dude has led the team, with wins in the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap in March and the Grade 1, $250,000 Goodwood Stakes on Oct. 1, when he engaged in an early speed duel before holding on to win by a half-length over Awesome Gem, an effort that Baffert called “incredible.”

“I feel really good about him,” he said of Game On Dude’s chances in the Classic.

Plum Pretty could be Baffert’s best chance over the two-day event. The winner of the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in May, she won the Cotillion Stakes at Parx Racing by 7 1/2 lengths Oct. 1.

“If she can guarantee a race like that again,” Baffert said, “I’ll have a talk with her. She’s getting better.”

But for his popularity with racing fans and career accomplishments, Baffert has had mixed results in the Breeders’ Cup. He won his first BC race with Thirty Slews in the 1992 Sprint, shortly after he left Quarter Horse racing. He didn’t get his second Breeders’ Cup win until 1998, when Silverbulletday won the Juvenile Fillies. From 1999 to 2006 he won only one Breeders’ Cup race from 23 starters − the 2002 Juvenile with Vindication.

The 2007 races at Monmouth Park and the 2008 event at Santa Anita were outstanding years for Baffert. Midnight Lute won the 2007 Sprint and defended the title the following year. Indian Blessing won the 2007 Juvenile Fillies, and Midshipman won the 2008 Juvenile.

Baffert has been shut out the last two years. From four runners at Santa Anita in 2009, his best result was Lookin At Lucky’s second in the Juvenile. Last year at Churchill Downs, Baffert had three starters, and Lookin At Lucky’s fourth in the Classic was the best finish.

Overall, Baffert is fourth in wins on the Breeders’ Cup’s all-time list, trailing leader D. Wayne Lukas, who has won 18 races. Baffert said he realizes there is pressure to perform at the Breeders’ Cup, the rare days when racing has national visibility.

“I want to win on the big day,” he said. “I want to develop champions.”

For a stable that is perennially among the nation’s leaders and often in the spotlight, the Baffert team has a small hierarchy. His top assistant, Jimmy Barnes, has been part of the team since November 1998. Barnes, 52, works alongside Baffert for most of the year at Santa Anita, where approximately 50 horses are based. The overall stable comprises 125 horses, with 75 based at Hollywood Park with assistant Mike Marlow, 47, who joined the team in 2009.

The Hollywood Park division consists of a few race-ready runners and the bulk of the stable’s horses who are returning from layoffs or young horses who are just arriving to the racetrack. Marlow has an extensive résumé as a trainer, having worked as an assistant trainer to D. Wayne Lukas in California as well as training on his own.

Barnes joined Baffert’s stable at a time when Silver Charm and Real Quiet were the focus. He had a good tip on the job opening − his wife, Dana, has worked as an exercise rider for Baffert on and off for the last 15 years.

With Baffert, Barnes helped oversee the development of champions such as Chilukki (1999 2-year-old filly), Point Given (2001 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year), Midnight Lute (2007 Sprinter), and Lookin At Lucky (2009 2-year-old male and 2010 3-year-old male).

“I wish I could clone them,” Baffert said of Barnes and Marlow. “They make my life so much easier. My job is to keep the pond stocked. They’re my generals. They know how I think. They’re working with really good horses, and that gives you a reason to go to work.”

Baffert’s success the last decade has put Barnes in the spotlight within racing circles. The attention has made him well known around the nation as Baffert’s top assistant, but he said he has not been tempted to break away and form his own barn.

“To have your own stable, it’s hard,” he said. “It would be hard not dealing with the caliber of horses I have. I’ve got it made. I’m the luckiest guy in the United States.”

Baffert cultivates the public persona of a white-haired wisecracker from the back of the classroom, but Barnes sees the more serious side. Their late morning skull sessions over training charts are best not interrupted – by journalists, jockey’s agents, or even clients − with Baffert and Barnes discussing the morning’s work and deciding how to proceed with the runners.

Barnes has seen the private side evolve, too. Baffert has been divorced and remarried in the last decade. He and his wife, Jill, have a young son, Bode, who is often at the races with his parents on weekends. Baffert has four children from his previous marriage.

“He hasn’t really changed,” Barnes said, reflecting on Baffert over the last 13 years. “He’s very attentive on everything – horses’ breeding, when he bought every horse, and the sort of horse he likes to buy.”

Barnes said this is one of the times of the year when the team is more focused.

“It does get a little more intense leading up to the races,” Barnes said. “This is like the playoffs right now.”

While the general sports public does not see Baffert outside of the Triple Crown or Breeders’ Cup races, he has had a strong season in Southern California, winning training titles at the Santa Anita winter-spring meeting and at the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting.

But Baffert’s stable is based on winning the nation’s most prominent races. To consider the Breeders’ Cup a success, he must bring home trophies next month.

Said Baffert: “It’s all about the big stage with us.”