04/04/2002 12:00AM

Used to a bazooka, Baffert is down to a pistol

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The jokes are always at the ready, but they're a little more forced this year. There's less zip in his step. He's had so much frustration, his hair is about to turn dark. Bob Baffert is not used to this.

He's used to being the center of attention in the spring, when racing's focus is on the Kentucky Derby, and the Derby focus is on him. He won the Derby with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, had a near miss with Cavonnier, and even in years when he didn't come close - as with General Challenge and, last year, with Point Given - he sent out the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, with his horse having just won the Santa Anita Derby.

This year, "I've just got a Derringer with one bullet," Baffert said.

His last, lone hope is , who won a pair of stakes races at Golden Gate Fields earlier this year, but who will be a longshot in Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

Because of all the success Baffert has had with 3-year-olds in recent years, his stable has grown exponentially. He started last year with more 2-year-olds than he has ever trained. Expensive ones, too. Yet one by one, they went by the wayside. Some, like China Grind and High Thunder, showed promise, but got hurt. Others, like Officer, flashed great promise, but found longer distances too big a challenge. And plenty of others just did not amount to anything. So, the question many have is, "What about Bob?"

"Maybe I didn't buy enough," Baffert said. He was serious. "All the horses that did well for me are off-the-wall breds." Danthebluegrass-man is by Pioneering.

"High Thunder, we had to operate on him," Baffert said. "He came back, but he wasn't right. There's a point that you just say, He doesn't have enough time. You have to stop, or you'll ruin them. If you put them through the grind, you won't have any horse left for later. You have to be going full throttle by January, or it's too late [for the Derby].

"People expect the big boys like us to do well. They expect it from Zito. They expect it from Lukas."

This year, the comparison is apt. D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, like Baffert multiple winners of the Kentucky Derby, have even fewer Derby prospects than Baffert.

Baffert still has one one of the nation's leading 3-year-old fillies in Habibti, and Officer is training as though he will race with great success this year, so long as he is kept around one turn. Baffert even has a top 3-year-old turf horse, Mountain Rage, owned in part by his fiancee, Jill Moss. But the file folder marked "serious Derby contenders" is wafer thin.

"The only horse I've got who can go a mile and a quarter is Mountain Rage," Baffert said. "He just can't get there fast enough. If the Derby was on the grass I'd feel better.

"I'm trying to get motivated. When you've had horses like Silver Charm, Real Quiet, General Challenge, and Point Given, it's hard to get excited. Unless you think you can win the Derby. Then it's a different story. A horse needs to earn his way in. Right now, I don't have a horse I can brag on. Dan is going to have to do something he's never done before - win at Santa Anita."

Danthebluegrassman, owned by Mike Pegram - who also owned Real Quiet and Captain Steve - has won three times in seven starts, but has lost twice at Santa Anita, both times in maiden races at the beginning of his career. He has improved since then, but by how much?

"He looks the part," Baffert said. "He's a big, good-looking horse. Silver Charm, Real Quiet, General Challenge, Point Given, no, he doesn't compare. I'm hoping he's like Cavonnier. He didn't impress me until the Santa Anita Derby.

"I can't wait for Saturday. I need to know if I'll need a box on Derby Day."