Updated on 09/15/2011 12:56PM

Shirreffs' ego fits his job


DEL MAR, Calif. - In the talented family of trainers employed by The Thoroughbred Corp. of Ahmed Salman, England's legendary Henry Cecil could be considered the eldest and most accomplished while local boy Bob Baffert is the baby, precocious and somewhat spoiled. That makes John Shirreffs the middle child.

"The middle child is the normal, friendly one," wrote Garrison Keillor in "The Book of Guys."

"Parents devote themselves to the troubled children and become close to them. So the middle child is ignored, because he or she is so nice and requires no special attention."

The description fits Shirreffs, 56, like a glove. Modest to a fault, self-effacing and downright shy, Shirreffs, a native of Kansas, has spent most of his career hiding behind the considerable achievements of the horses he has trained. Bertrando, Manistique, Borodislew, David Copperfield, Lacquaria, Radu Cool - these and many others have responded to his quiet, confident touch.

Such a profile is in direct contrast to the eccentric Cecil, the rose-growing winner of 23 English classics who on occasion provides grist for the British tabloids. And it certainly clashes with the public persona of Baffert, a man with a knack for occupying the center of attention, even when he doesn't try.

"I'm trying to upgrade my wardrobe," Shirreffs said with a grin. Prince Ahmed has been known to advise Baffert on fashion and style. "But I know Bob is still more comfortable in jeans."

It has been about a year now since Shirreffs took over the bulk of the Salman horses racing on the Southern California circuit. Shirreffs was recovering from the death of his patron, Marshal Naify, and the dispersal of the stable, which included Manistique, one of the best fillies in recent history. When Richard Mulhall, Salman's racing manager, needed someone to step in for the former Thoroughbred Corp. trainer Alex Hassinger, Shirreffs came quickly to mind.

He was hard to ignore. In 1999, he ran 75 horses and won 30 times, an incredible 40 percent strike rate. And even with the turmoil of the Naify dispersal and formation of a new stable, Shirreffs still managed to win with 22 percent of his starters in 2000.

To this point, the cream of Salman's West Coast horses have ended up in Baffert's care. There is Point Given, Officer, Habibti, and Saudi Poetry - all of them major talents - as well as a second wave of young horses who are just arriving at the races.

In contrast, the 20 horses Shirreffs trains for the Thoroughbred Corp. are a cut or so below the Baffert group. This might bother another trainer, especially since the Shirreffs and Baffert barns are side by side at Del Mar.

But Shirreffs seems serene in his role, and he has room to carry about 15 horses for other clients. If there is any frustration, he doesn't let it show.

"I've got a very good job," he said Thursday morning, as he prepared for the final few days of the Del Mar meet. "And some of the horses I've got for the prince are real runners."

One of them is Performing Magic, who faces El Corredor on Sunday in the $250,000 Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap. Better known around the Shirreffs barn as "Curly" (check out the wave in his dark red mane and tail), Performing Magic began his career as a 2-year-old with Cecil, then raced through the first half of 2000 with Hassinger. A son of Gone West, Performing Magic won the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs and the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park before switching to Shirreffs last summer.

Shirreffs ran Performing Magic twice last year. He won the Remington Park Derby in Oklahoma, then finished second in the Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park in October. "And he should have won that one," the trainer insisted.

Instead, Performing Magic got a vacation. After seven races at seven different tracks in six different states, he certainly had one coming.

"He'd had a pretty hard season," Shirreffs noted. "And his shins needed a little rest. I've had that happen to other horses who started their careers on softer courses in Europe. They're not used to the concussion of American surfaces. So you'll see some of them come up with tender shins at 3 and 4, older than what we're used to seeing with horses over here."

Shirreffs brought Performing Magic back to the races at six furlongs on Aug. 9 and was more than pleased with his fourth-place finish.

"About the last thing he wants to do is sprint," the trainer said. "Hopefully, that set him up good for the mile."

One look at the 4-year-old version of Performing Magic brings a smile. He is a small horse, perhaps 1,000 pounds, with a compact, muscular build and a dishy, impish face.

"Watch out," warned Shirreffs as a visitor approached Performing Magic's stall. "He's got an attention span of about 30 seconds, then he loses his patience."

Right on cue, the colt grabbed a sheepskin girth cover draped over the webbing and flung it into the air. He did the same thing with his saddle towel, then stomped them both into the bedding before Shirreffs finally called time out.

"Felipe, bring the shank and walk this guy for a while," the trainer said. "He's not going out until 9:15." And he needed to save something for Sunday.