Updated on 09/18/2011 3:30AM

Unlikely Saratoga presence a telling one


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Bob Baffert is the quintessential California horse trainer. His relaxed manner, casual style, and tousled silver hair make him a distinctive contrast with some of his suit-and-tie counterparts in the East. His training style is distinctly Californian, too; he relishes and knows how to hone Thoroughbreds' speed to take advantage of the West's speed-favoring tracks.

Baffert loves the state and he particularly loves Del Mar. He annually gears up his stable for the season at the seaside resort, and he has won more stakes there than any trainer in history. He unveils his best young prospects there, and he captured the track's premier 2-year-old race, the Del Mar Futurity, seven straight years from 1996 to 2002.

So the idea of seeing Bob Baffert encamped at Saratoga in August is about as improbable as seeing somebody with a wet suit and a surfboard walking down Union Avenue. But, indeed, Baffert is spending a good part of his summer in the alien East. On Monday he will run his exciting 2-year-old, Maimonides, not at Del Mar but in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. His presence here represents a wrenching change for Baffert, and it reflects a radical change in America's horse racing industry.

After an epidemic of breakdowns at Del Mar last summer gave the sport a black eye, the California Horse Racing Board mandated that all of the state's tracks install artificial surfaces for the sake of horses' safety. Everybody knew that the era of lightning-fast, speed-favoring tracks was over, though Hollywood Park's new surface, Cushion Track, wasn't too drastic a change from traditional dirt. But when Del Mar opened with its Polytrack surface, Thoroughbred racing became a whole new game.

The surface was exceptionally slow, and front-runners had difficulty winning - particularly in distance races. The outcome of the track's biggest race, the Pacific Classic, was almost farcical. Lava Man, California's most celebrated horse, faded badly in the stretch while an implausible longshot won by covering 1 1/4 miles in a tortoise-like 2:07.29.

"When I got to Del Mar this summer," Baffert said, "I knew I was going to have a problem. Some horses skipped over [the Polytrack] with no problem. Others would work a half-mile and come back like they'd run 2 1/2 miles."

The trainer believes some horses are bred to like it and others aren't - turf horses seem to adapt to Polytrack readily. But most of Baffert's youngsters have dirt-oriented pedigrees and are bred for speed. The trainer's forebodings were correct; he lost 19 of his first 20 starts over the track he had once dominated.

If Baffert was upset, so too was one of his principal clients. Ahmed Zayat has been spending big money at auctions for well-bred prospects - notably the $4.6 million he spent for Maimonides, a colt whose pedigree contained speed and more speed. Zayat discussed the condition of the Polytrack with Del Mar's CEO, Joe Harper, urging him to make some changes that would make the surface fairer. Harper said he was standing pat. The discussion turned into an argument that the Daily Racing Form characterized as "animated and at times profane," and ended when Zayat declared, "I'm not staying here. Good-bye."

Within 48 hours Baffert hastily made arrangements to obtain 10 stalls at Saratoga and 15 at Belmont Park in the fall, and to move part of his Thoroughbred operation across the country. As his concerns about Polytrack became public, Baffert found himself squarely in the middle of the debate over artificial surfaces.

Until now, the conversion to artificial surfaces has been accompanied by surprisingly little discussion, considering that it is turning the nature of the sport upside down. For centuries, speed has been the quality most prized by Thoroughbred owners and breeders. Polytrack diminished the importance of speed and sometimes made it a liability.

Advocates say artificial surfaces are safer for horses, and few people have been willing to question that assumption. Some owners and trainers may be reluctant to criticize Polytrack because the company that makes the surface is half-owned by the Keeneland Association, whose racetrack and sales company make it one of the great powers in American racing. When Baffert spoke out, he was stunned by the reaction.

"Nobody wants you to rock the boat," he said. "You get vilified if you talk against Polytrack." His critics said Baffert was whining because he couldn't adapt to a new style of training needed for the surface. Harper told a reporter, "I knew a speed trainer like Bob would have trouble with it."

It was unsettling for Baffert to disrupt his usual Del Mar routine and start a bicoastal operation. "I had to pry my wife and baby off the beach," he said. But he knew he had to do it, if only for the sake of Maimonides.

"There's nothing more exciting in the game than to have a young horse like this," said Baffert, who trained the 2-year-old's sire, Vindication, to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In Maimonides he saw a resemblance to the champion: "He just wants to get out there and go fast." Baffert was confident that Maimonides could win on any surface, but he didn't want to run in a typical Polytrack race, with jockeys restraining their horses early and then turning them loose for a dash to the wire.

"If the horse wins by a neck or a nose in slow time [on Polytrack] what does that tell you?" he asked. Baffert wanted to see the colt unleash the speed for which he was bred.

When he saddled Maimonides for his racing debut at Saratoga, even the loosey-goosey Baffert felt the pressure. There was no need to worry. The colt came out of the gate in high gear and steadily drew away from his field, winning by 11 1/2 lengths. He will face his first serious test when he runs in the historic Hopeful against Ready's Image, the current leader of the 2-year-old generation. If Maimonides is good enough to win, Baffert will be in hot pursuit of his fourth Kentucky Derby victory. But he will certainly be taking a different route to Churchill Downs as he reluctantly reinvents himself as a bicoastal trainer.

(c) 2007, The Washington Post