06/21/2012 2:25PM

Hovdey: Jill and Bode Baffert out to take New York in Mother Goose

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Barbara D. Livingston
Bob and Jill Baffert, the husband-wife, owner-trainer connections of blazing fast filly Contested.

In a given season over the past 25 years, the winners of the Mother Goose Stakes in New York and the Hollywood Oaks out West could have been selected from a list of 3-year-old fillies that includes Rachel Alexandra, Go for Wand, Hollywood Wildcat, Sky Beauty, Manistique, Serena’s Song, Lakeway, Meadow Star, Open Mind, Sharp Cat, and Gorgeous.

The jury is still out regarding the chances of a filly from the current crop someday being mentioned in the same breath as that salty bunch. But if they want to be, Saturday is a good time to start when both races will be run, the Oaks for the 66th time and the Mother Goose for the 56th.

Most of the attention will be fixed upon Belmont Park and a field of five in the Mother Goose, topped by Kentucky Oaks winner Believe You Can. That does not mean the Hollywood Oaks isn’t worth watching, especially with drama queen Willa B Awesome in the mix against Jerry Hollendorfer’s pair of Via Villaggio and Killer Graces.

Willa B Awesome has won her last two races by noses, never mind that one was the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks and the other restricted to Cal-breds. She could make a trip to the dry cleaners interesting.

As for the Hollendorfer fillies, they’ve pretty much got this synthetic track deal nailed down. Between them, Via Villaggio (by Bernardini) and Killer Graces (by Congaree) have run 11 times on the all-weather, winning six – four in stakes – and finishing second in three.

Under most circumstances Jill Baffert would be found at Hollywood Park on Saturday alongside husband Bob and owner Kaleem Shah to cheer on the stable’s Las Virgenes Stakes winner Eden’s Moon, who needs to wipe away the memory of a grim Kentucky Oaks with a big race in the 1 1/16-mile Hollywood version.

Jill will be otherwise occupied, however, on the other side of the continent watching her Acorn Stakes winner Contested try to stretch her obvious talents to a mile and one-eighth in the Mother Goose.

“I don’t know whether to start getting nervous yet or not,” Jill said Thursday morning while packing for the trip East.

Acorn winners, for all their class, are never automatics in the Mother Goose – only Jersey Girl and Bushfire have won both in the last 15 years – but Contested’s Acorn was so impressive that she likely will be favored.

And with good reason. Contested is on a run of four straight wins, dating back to her maiden score at Santa Anita last October and including the Eight Belles at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Oaks undercard. The fate of the filly for which that event was named was not lost on Jill, who is active in efforts to enhance Thoroughbred welfare.

“There are so many highs and lows in this business you never quite know what to expect,” she said. “But right now though I’m trying to figure out how to get a train from Manhattan to Belmont Park on the day of the race.”

What, no limo service from midtown?

“It’s for Bode,” Jill said. “He wants to see Grand Central Station.”

Like any other 7-year-old boy whose namesake lost heartbreakers in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, the Bafferts’ son Bode has shaken off the tough losses suffered by Bodemeister this spring and moved on. Happily, the chance to visit America’s most famous train station would rank high on any boy’s bucket list of “things to do before I’m twelve” – trains being to young lads what ponies are to girls.

Once at Belmont, it will be mom’s turn to live the dream. Contested was a $110,000 Keeneland September yearling with a rich pedigree led by her sire, Ghostzapper, and her damsire, Arch. Even before Contested made her first start, the filly would come up in conversation around the dinner table.

“From when we got her, Bob was always talking about how beautiful she was, how he loved her body and the way she moved,” Jill said. “She’s still a little bit skittish in her stall, but she’s coming around. I’m used to horses coming right up to the front of the stall and nickering for you to come over. I wondered why she wasn’t that way, but in the last few months she’s been a lot better.”

The Bafferts are hardly the first husband-wife team to double as trainer and owner, whether it is done for business purposes or household peace. The most successful of the couples undoubtedly was Hirsch and Ethel Jacobs, who together campaigned Hall of Famers Stymie and Affectionately among many others. Officially, Contested is owned by Natalie J. Baffert, which should not cause confusion but still does.

“I know,” said Jill, whose given name is Natalie Jillene. “People were asking Bob, ‘Who’s that, your mom?’ ”

Before Contested came along, the Bafferts already were on the map with Misremembered, winner of the 2010 Santa Anita Handicap. Still, there is nothing quite like the pizzazz of owning a 3-year-old rocket ship of a filly who’s already taken one of the nation’s premier prizes for the division. Right now, Contested has risen to the top of a Baffert stable depth chart that at one time or another was led by Eden’s Moon, Princess Arabella, and Mamma Kimbo.

“It’s exciting, but I’m still kind of in shock,” Jill added. “We’re middle-class, blue-collar kind of people, and a filly like this doesn’t come around too often for anybody. I can’t believe she’s ours.”