06/03/2002 11:00PM

The Golden Boy they love to hate

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ELMONT, N.Y. - This is the third time in the last six seasons that trainer Bob Baffert has had a horse heading into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Like Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem goes into the Belmont this Saturday with only one lap of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Park oval standing between him and immortality.

Experience has made the training aspect of the quest easier. "The road gets smoother every time you go down it," Baffert said. But in other ways, this has been his bumpiest ride yet in the Triple Crown.

It has nothing to do with training, and everything to do with image. Baffert, 49, has lost the patina of being the sport's fair-haired boy. When he arrived on the national scene in 1996, with Cavonnier, his whimsical ways were seen as refreshing, and he showed remarkable poise after heartbreaking, back-to-back losses in the Belmont.

Baffert remains a popular figure, so much so that Hollywood Park is giving away a Baffert bobblehead doll on June 15, making him the first trainer to attain that level of celebrity. Yet Baffert's relationships inside and outside the sport have undergone a startling change this spring. On ESPN television's "The Sports Reporters" show, columnist Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, who does not regularly cover Baffert, suggested that Baffert was "the most hated man in racing."

Nancy Alberts, the owner and trainer of Magic Weisner, who was second to War Emblem in the Preakness Stakes, said she had offers to buy the horse from people who said they wanted "to beat Bob Baffert." The latest backstretch joke is that the size of the head on the Baffert bobblehead doll is drawn to scale.

After Baffert and owner Mike Pegram entered Danthebluegrassman in the Kentucky Derby at the last moment, a comment in Daily Racing Form suggested that the move lacked class. "You are the villains of the sport," Baffert shouted at a DRF reporter in a public outburst the morning of the Derby.

Baffert, who has plenty of defenders, said he is viewed differently now because people are jealous.

"People are intimidated by each other's success," Baffert said. "I'm just a different style. I'm looser. Anytime you start winning a lot, seeing the same thing over and over, some of the media resent that."

Some of this sideshow has detracted from what Baffert has proven time and again - that he has an uncanny feel for training racehorses. The previous connections of War Emblem didn't even consider the colt worthy of running in the Derby. Less than two months later, Baffert has War Emblem one step away from the becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner.

The barbs first began to fly in Baffert's direction when he engineered the private purchase of War Emblem following his runaway victory in the Illinois Derby on April 6. There was a perception that Baffert and Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation were so desperate to have a Derby horse that they were willing to buy a colt others had turned down because of concerns about soundness.

To Baffert, however, the purchase of War Emblem was a calculated gamble, one that surely had risks, but also enough upside to warrant the transaction.

"All racing is a gamble," he said. "We buy yearlings for millions of dollars, and they haven't even run. At least he had run."

The stress level increased the week of the Derby, but it had nothing to do with War Emblem. Baffert's decision to enter Danthebluegrassman was kept secret until the last moment and left the connections of Windward Passage, who was bumped from the field, with frayed nerves. Danthebluegrassman was scratched the morning of the Derby, and Barry Irwin, the president of Team Valor, which owns Windward Passage, said, "I think the situation speaks for itself."

When War Emblem won the Derby, a new round of questions followed. There were suggestions that the winning team of Baffert and an Arab owner was a combination that Kentuckians did not find as appealing as bourbon, crushed ice, simple syrup, and a sprig of mint.

"How can I put this diplomatically?" trainer John T. Ward Jr. said in a telephone conference call the week after the race. "On Derby Day, there didn't seem to be the emotional outburst that there is sometimes."

After the Derby, Russell Reineman, who had sold 90 percent of War Emblem to Salman, argued that he was entitled to at least 50 percent of the $1 million bonus earned by War Emblem for capturing both the Kentucky and Illinois Derbies. Baffert has largely stayed out of that fray but said he would split his share of the bonus with the horse's former trainer, Bobby Springer.

Baffert devours all forms of media. On NBC's Preakness telecast, he went out of his way to tease commentator Charlsie Cantey for an opinion she had voiced two weeks earlier about the stretch run of the Derby.

He will regularly call writers, sometimes to point out errors of fact in news stories, sometimes to debate opinions in columns. There is no other trainer in the sport who does this as often.

Baffert has compared his current situation to that of trainer D. Wayne Lukas, whose maverick ways and success have made him a source of controversy. Baffert and Lukas have never been close. Both men came to Thoroughbred racing after finding success with Quarter Horses. They are country music stars crashing the party at the opera house.

Thoroughbred people "are intimidated by your success," Baffert said.

The week of the Preakness, Lukas was quoted in USA Today as saying that Baffert had "been on scholarship his whole life." After the race, Baffert couldn't resist responding and said on NBC's telecast, "They don't give scholarships to dummies."

After the Preakness, Baffert said "opinions die, and records live," a nod to his increasing preoccupation with the Triple Crown races. This hardly makes him a bad guy, but it puts Baffert more in line with Lukas's unwavering passion for winning. Baffert has eight classic winners, trailing only Lukas and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, who lead all trainers with 13.

"When you keep winning and winning, you get obsessed with it," Baffert said. "I want to win the Derby every year. If I didn't, that would be like a football coach who says he doesn't want to win the Super Bowl."

Now Belmont Stakes week has arrived. All the questions from the past few weeks will be rehashed, and plenty of new ones will crop up. Baffert has long been accommodating with the news media. In fact, he believes some of his problems stem from overexposure.

"Nobody wants to step up and promote the sport," Baffert said. "Wayne's a great spokesperson. Other trainers don't want to step up."

And while he will be front and center for the rest of the week, Baffert said he's going to mind his p's and q's.

"I know I've been a little testy at times," Baffert said. "A lot of time my mind is preoccupied."

"I'm going to wear a lip cord," he joked, "so I behave myself. I'm just going to enjoy the moment, because you never know when this is going to happen again."