06/05/2012 3:23PM

Hollywood Park: Baffert hot at home if not in Triple Crown

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bob Baffert went into the week with a double-digit lead in victories over the second-place trainer, John Sadler.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is down to his last chance.
After disappointing losses by Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes last month, the lightly raced Paynter starts in Saturday's Belmont Stakes as Baffert's final opportunity to earn a victory in the series of races he covets the most.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

Baffert has nine Triple Crown career wins - three Kentucky Derbys, five victories in the Preakness Stakes, and one in the Belmont Stakes. It will be an achievement if Paynter can beat I'll Have Another on Saturday. The colt has yet to win a stakes.

Last weekend, Baffert reflected on his frustrating losses in the Triple Crown this year, which has occurred simultaneous to widespread success with his home stable in Southern California.

"If you get beat, you get beat," he said last weekend. "When they make it official, you've got to move on to the next one."

For Baffert, 59, this has been a year like no other. A heart attack suffered in March while in Dubai has led to a stricter diet. He says he is about 16 pounds lighter now, around 170 pounds, than he was a few months ago.

Because of his health issues, he seems more at ease in recent weeks. In the past, tough losses in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes would have been a sore subject. Today, he is more philosophical.

Baffert has never won the Triple Crown, but came close in 1997 and 1998 when Silver Charm and Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes only to finish second in the Belmont Stakes.

For Saturday's Belmont, Baffert is cast as the role of spoiler with Paynter, a rapidly improving colt owned by Ahmed Zayat, who also owns Bodemeister. There is little to lose in starting Paynter. Trainer Doug O'Neill and the I'll Have Another team will capture the attention this week, from fans and media.

Baffert will not have the spotlight. He recalls all too vividly the pressure of being the trainer with a Triple Crown at stake, and the attention that accompanies that.

"I tried to do it myself and it was exhausting," he said. "By the time the day comes, you're ready. Let it run."

Paynter has faced I'll Have Another once, finishing fourth, in the Santa Anita Derby on April 7. A colt by Awesome Again, Paynter was later second in the Grade 3 Derby Trial Stakes at Churchill Downs on April 28 and an impressive winner of an allowance race at Pimlico on May 19, on the undercard of the Preakness Stakes.

Baffert, who won the Belmont Stakes in 2001 with Point Given, confirmed Paynter as a Belmont starter last weekend.

"He's not a good work horse," Baffert said. "I wanted to get a nice seven-eighths in him, and we got one. He'll have to really step it up to beat I'll Have Another.
"I've got a lot of respect for that horse. I can't beat him."

He cannot beat him with his 3-year-olds -- so far -- but the game will change for I'll Have Another later in the year. Eventually he will face older horses, and Baffert will be waiting with the five-time stakes winner Game On Dude, who was fourth in the 2010 Belmont.

Game On Dude provided the springtime highlight for Baffert's stable, with an emphatic victory by 7 1/4 lengths in the Grade 2 Californian Stakes at Betfair Hollywood Park last Saturday. The win made the 5-year-old Game On Dude the favorite for the $500,000 Hollywood Gold Cup on July 7.

"I thought he'd run well, but I didn't think I'd see that," Baffert said after the race.

Through Sunday, Baffert is the runaway leader in the trainer's standings at the Betfair Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, winning with 19 of his first 46 starters. He has a double-digit lead on closest pursuer John Sadler, who has eight victories.

"Everything is clicking well," he said. "I've got a good staff. We have nice horses and we're getting opportunities to run."

As he said that, Baffert's competitive nature surfaced.

"You can never win enough," he said. "You can lose too many.