12/14/2005 12:00AM

Seems like old times

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Bob and John finished first but was disqualified to third in the Real Quiet. He is one of several 2-year-olds who could bring trainer Bob Baffert back to the top.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - As meteorically as trainer Bob Baffert rose around the turn of the century, so, too, has his production fallen in recent years. He has been like investors in the Nasdaq, who were once flying high and are now seeking the value that got them there in the first place.

Success often begets success, but Baffert believes his numbers have fallen because he abandoned the core philosophy that brought him to the top. After Baffert won the Kentucky Derby in successive years with bargain colts like Silver Charm and Real Quiet, his clients gave him the budget to spend more.

More money did not bring more winners, however. Baffert's annual earnings peaked at $16,842,332 in 1999, but since 2001, they have declined every year. His earnings this year, $5,503,359 (through Tuesday), are the lowest for him since 1996 and marks the third straight year he failed to reach the $10 million mark, after hitting it five straight years.

"I spoiled myself," Baffert said.

"I got lucky with Cavonnier," the 1996 Derby runner-up, "and Silver Charm and Real Quiet, and got to thinking it was easy. I outsmarted myself."

A lifeline has been sent his way, however. Baffert, 52, has a strong group of 2-year-olds, despite losing his most precocious colt, What a Song, to a fatal injury last summer at Del Mar. Many of his 2-year-olds are late-developing runners who seem ideally suited to next spring's classics, including , who will represent Baffert in the Grade 1, $250,000 Hollywood Futurity at 1 1/16 miles on Saturday at Hollywood Park.

Bob and John was bred and is owned by Bob McNair's Stonerside Stable and is named for McNair and his racing manager, John Adger. A son of Seeking the Gold out of the Deputy Minister mare Minister's Melody, Bob and John has an excellent pedigree, but has the gangly body of a horse who should appreciate more distance and still needs to fill into his frame.

He's getting there, though.

"He's changed a lot in the last 60 days," Baffert said. "When he first came in, he was really immature - gangly and tall. He's starting to relax. He used to get washy all the time, and he's light. He's maturing. It's exciting when you've got a horse that's talented. He's still got a ways to go, but by springtime, he's going to be a really good horse."

That bodes well for Bob and John, because he's already made significant progress. Since stretching out around two turns following a sprint debut, he has finished first or second in all three of his races. In his last start, he finished six lengths in front in the Real Quiet Stakes on Nov. 26 at Hollywood Park, but was subsequently disqualified in a controversial stewards' decision. The stewards ruled that Bob and John, under Victor Espinoza, crossed in front of Kissin Knight while taking the lead in the stretch, forcing Kissin Knight to check and alter course, and costing him second place. Kissin Knight lost second late to Genre, who was moved up to first place on the disqualification.

"I was in shock for a second," Baffert said of his reaction when the decision was announced. "At first I wasn't worried, but the longer they took, the more worried I got. I was thinking, 'They can't be that incompetent.' What was disappointing is that the horse ran such a beautiful race and wasn't rewarded for it. He came out of it great. He wasn't tired like the time before."

After defeating maidens at Del Mar, Bob and John was expected to run in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting on Oct. 2, but he got sick and missed the race. Bob and John did not run again until Nov. 4, when he finished second to A.P. Warrior - another scheduled Futurity runner - in an allowance race at Santa Anita.

"He got sick before the Norfolk, but it might have been a blessing in disguise," Baffert said. "His body still has a lot of filling out to do, and if he had run well in that race, we might have gone to the Breeders' Cup. But in a one-turn race, he wouldn't have been very effective.

"He's still got a long ways to go. I'm not sure that at a mile and a sixteenth he's quick enough, but a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter should be a piece of cake."

It was the homebred colts, like Cavonnier, and the inexpensive buys, like Silver Charm and Real Quiet, who shot Baffert to the top. Then, he says, "I got to buying horses off pedigree."

There were plenty of expensive busts. Trial By Jury cost $900,000 as a weanling in November 1999. Trial By Jury was one of Baffert's 3-year-olds of 2002, a group that performed so poorly he turned to privately purchasing War Emblem 3 1/2 weeks before the Derby. War Emblem, bought in a deal valued at $1 million, won the Derby for Baffert and Prince Ahmed Salman, salvaging Baffert's season.

Other high-priced young horses in recent years who didn't pan out for Baffert include Smart Again, who cost $500,000 as a weanling in November 2000. Extra cost $975,000 as a yearling in 2001. Stand and Fight was a $775,000 yearling purchase in 2001 whose first win came in a $25,000 maiden-claiming race. Contribute ($775,000) and Scenic Wonder ($625,000) were yearling purchases of 2001, and Truckle Feature ($500,000) was a 2-year-old buy in the spring of 2002. No need to worry if you've never heard of most, or any, of them.

There's more. From the next crop, there was the expensive bust Sea of Secrets, who cost $2.7 million as a 2-year-old in training in March 2003, along with yearling buys Work ($950,000) and Consistent ($700,000).

Baffert's current group of 3-year-olds included Haskell winner Roman Ruler, who cost $500,000 as a yearling, but also included One Smart Deputy ($700,000 buy as a 2-year-old) and expensive private purchases Actxecutive and Sort It Out, neither of whom panned out.

Even his current crop of 2-year-olds has some expensive purchases who have yet to be seen, including a Storm Cat colt who, at $8 million, was the most expensive yearling sold at auction in 2004. But Baffert also has some homebreds and relatively inexpensive runners who have shown promise, like Enforcement, Only in Louisiana, and Wanna Runner.

"I've gone back to buying the kind that got me there in the first place," Baffert said. "Some of those horses with great pedigrees, they're slow. I feel really good about the group of horses I've got. I've got about five really good 2-year-olds. I think I'm going to have a good Christmas."