04/28/2003 12:00AM

Octogenarian record mogul tries Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - So far Phil Chess is 1 for 1 in the Kentucky Derby.

In 1942, when he was a student at Western Kentucky State Teachers College - now Western Kentucky University - he and a group of friends drove from Bowling Green to Louisville on Derby Day and he was thrilled to watch from the infield as his selection, Shut Out, won the 68th Run for the Roses in the colors of Greentree Stable.

He hasn't been to Churchill Downs since, but he will be here Saturday when his Indian Express attempts to upset the heavily favored Empire Maker in the 129th Kentucky Derby. A number of observers here think Indian Express, the Santa Anita Derby runner-up, has a decent chance to succeed, but win or lose, no one in the huge crowd expected for the classic will enjoy the day more than the 83-year-old resident of Tucson, Ariz., who has been a racing fan all his life.

Chess started with Quarter Horses, which is how he met the trainer of Indian Express, Bob Baffert. Baffert was prominent in the Quarter Horse arena before switching to Thoroughbreds a dozen years ago. The two men hit it off and were good friends long before Chess phoned Baffert, two years ago, and asked Baffert to buy him an inexpensive horse he could root for at Del Mar's pleasant meeting.

Baffert looked but couldn't find an appropriate purchase. But he received a recommendation late last fall from jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. on a 2-year-old sensation in Pincay's native Panama. The colt, Indian Express, had run twice, winning by more than 10 lengths in both instances. Baffert had to move fast to complete the deal. It was attractive to him because he had trained the sire, Indian Charlie, so he put up his own money, began to look for a buyer, and recalled Chess's request. The price of $150,000 was more than Chess had in mind but he had learned in the music business to be flexible in his thinking.

Chess's family emigrated from Eastern Europe early in the last century, settled in Chicago, and operated a junkyard. Chess and a brother bought a bar shortly before Chess was drafted for service in the Army during World War II. Upon discharge he rejoined his brother at the bar, which offered entertainment as well as spirits. Many promising young musicians and groups played there.

Record companies often came by to tape certain artists and one company asked the Chess brothers if they would like to invest in the firm. They agreed, eventually buying out their partners. The company, which at one time recorded only white musicians, began to include black artists and soon boasted a rising blues star in Muddy Waters. The company also scored heavily with the rock-and-roll sensation Chuck Berry.

Indian Express, Phil Chess's one-horse Thoroughbred racing stable, trained well for Baffert following the horse's arrival from Panama, and Baffert began to point him for the San Rafael at a mile on March 1. He popped a splint, however, and Indian Express was declared and treated for the splint.

"I was running out of time if Indian Express was to run in the Kentucky Derby along with my other prospects, such as Kafwain and Domestic Dispute," Baffert said. "We decided to run in the San Pedro at 6 1/2 furlongs on March 22. I offered the mount to Mike Smith, but he had a prior commitment with Azeri. So I called for Taylor Baze, an outstanding young rider."

Indian Express raced respectably in the San Pedro, beaten less than three lengths. The race had to help him and he gave an excellent performance in the subsequent Santa Anita Derby, losing by only a head to Buddy Gil.

"He moved forward as a result of the Santa Anita Derby," Baffert said. "We were a little concerned over the effects of a hard-fought finish to the Santa Anita Derby, but when I dropped by the barn that evening the groom told me Indian Express had eaten up all his dinner. This colt is mentally tough. He has thrived since he got to Louisville and gives every sign of being ready for a big effort."

Baffert sees this Derby as one in which many of the leading contenders have the same style. They all have tactical speed and are expected to vie early for position. He reasons that this scenario will be helpful to Indian Express, whose sire is one of the horses Baffert remembers best for his talent and fortitude.

Baffert has saddled three of the last six winners of the Kentucky Derby, a remarkable achievement. This record could easily have been 4 of 7 had Cavonnier not been whipped across the head in the upper stretch by a careless competitor.

Cavonnier lost that Derby by a nose to Grindstone, and Baffert learned you not only need a good horse to win this prize of prizes but a lucky one as well.