07/14/2008 12:00AM

Juveniles key to Baffert's rebuilding effort

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DEL MAR, Calif. - From 1997 through 2003, Bob Baffert won seven straight training titles, a Del Mar record, and from 1996 through 2002, Baffert won the Del Mar Futurity seven straight times, another record. The glare at Del Mar wasn't just coming from the sand on the nearby beach. It was coming off the top of Baffert's shiny, white-haired dome every time he stepped into the winner's circle.

That success helped propel Baffert, in just a few short years, to his current position as the fifth-winningest trainer in Del Mar history. But after a tumultuous 2007 season - in which his primary owner had a public blowup with the track president, several of his horses hightailed it to Saratoga, and he couldn't even muster up one representative in the 13-horse Del Mar Futurity - the question many are asking as Del Mar opens Wednesday is: What about Bob?

"Last year? Last year was just another chapter in my life," Baffert said at his Del Mar barn Monday morning. "I want this summer to be drama free."

Baffert hopes to quietly sneak up on everyone this summer. While he does not believe he has the overall ammunition to vie for leading trainer, Baffert has a full barn of 36 horses here, half of whom are 2-year-olds, and he has high hopes for several.

"To compete here for leading trainer, you have to have claiming horses, too," he said. "We're just trying to develop stakes horses. I've got more young horses. A lot of nice young horses. It's exciting to get them ready. A lot of them should be ready the middle of the meet. We've gone through a rebuilding phase the last couple of years. We're really heavy into the young horses this year.

"I've got some nice fillies and some nice colts," Baffert said, though he declined to identify which ones he liked best at this point.

Baffert has had to retrench in recent years because of the deaths of several of his top clients, including Bob Lewis, Prince Ahmed Salman (the Thoroughbred Corporation), and John Mabee (Golden Eagle Farm). In addition, Baffert lost Ahmed Zayat as a client last year not long after Zayat got into a heated shouting match near the racing office with Joe Harper, Del Mar's president, over the condition of Del Mar's new Polytrack surface last summer.

"Last year, I didn't have a Plan B," Baffert said. "This year, I'm going to have horses at Saratoga and here. I've got 12 stalls at Saratoga," which begins July 23.

How Baffert determines which horses stay here and which go to Saratoga will depend in large part on how they train on the reconstituted Polytrack surface. Last year, Baffert hastily sent 2-year-olds like J Be K and Maimonides, both owned by Zayat, to Saratoga when Zayat pulled his runners from Del Mar.

"It's going to depend on which ones like it here and how the 2-year-old races fill," Baffert said. "At Saratoga, you have maiden races almost every day. It'll be whatever opportunity looks better. I have options. Before, I didn't have options.

"One thing I've noticed with the synthetic tracks is you've got to go at a slower pace. It's demanding. But I think by the middle of the meet, if they all stay together, I'll have a nice meeting."

Baffert was one of the leading critics of the new Polytrack surface last year. He was frustrated that the surface was not as firm in the afternoons as it was in the mornings. So far, Baffert said, "the track looks a lot better than last year."

"It's nice to be down here," Baffert said.

And he actually sounded like he meant it.