08/01/2002 12:00AM

Will Baffert moon The Del?


DEL MAR, Calif. - Don't bother looking for Bob Baffert in the paddock late Saturday afternoon to saddle the maidens Golden Band and Mezzanine Money in the seventh. He'll be otherwise occupied.

"The wedding's at six, but I've been told to report to the receiving barn at four," Baffert said Thursday at his Del Mar barn. "Then I'll be led over."

What did you expect? This is Bob Baffert we're talking about here, the guy who turns the Kentucky Derby trophy into a beanie, who has made casual Friday a lifestyle, who is constantly surrounded by a Gas House gang of irreverent companeros.

From the moment he burst onto the national scene with the victory of Thirty Slews in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint, the farm boy from Nogales has been basically mooning the industry with one outrageous gesture after another. His friends will tell you that Bob has never changed - only his audience has - and that winning six Triple Crown races and three Eclipse Awards merely added fuel to the flame. If nothing else, it has been entertaining.

Baffert has lived the last six years in a fishbowl he filled himself, with an ever increasing circle of wealthy investors and expensive young horses. His social world has expanded to include luxury boxes at the World Series, courtside seats for the Lakers and brushes with Katie Couric.

And now he's getting married at The Del, to the former television broadcaster Jill Moss.

The Hotel del Coronado is the most famous place in San Diego. Period. You get married there and the wedding is on the map forever. The adjacent beach is rated among the finest in the land. Even the Eclipse Awards were worthy of The Del in February of 1996, when Team Cigar dominated the evening.

When the Hotel del Coronado was built in 1888 it was the largest wooden structure west of Chicago. This will come as a surprise to many people east of Chicago, who do not realize there was anything at all in California in 1888 save for a few disgruntled goldminers.

The Del was lit by Thomas Edison, who was paid well for his trouble. A few years later, Edward Windsor checked in, then calling himself the Prince of Wales, and met a compelling American woman named Wallis Simpson. Their romance made headlines.

More U.S. presidents have slept at The Del than Camp David. Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe romped through the hotel for the climactic scenes of "Some Like It Hot," while Peter O'Toole scaled the heights of The Del's landmark red cupolas in "The Stunt Man."

Baffert was spending Thursday morning practicing his vows ("I do. I do? Who me?") while putting the finishing touches on Congaree for Sunday's $250,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. He will miss that one as well, since War Emblem runs the same day in the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth Park, and the trainer's attendance is required. The Bafferts will then go on to Saratoga for a working honeymoon at the sales.

At the age of 4, Congaree is one of just a few old-timers in the Baffert barn. This is hard to believe, since Baffert made his bones in the Thoroughbred business by nursing horses profitably through long careers. They had names like Gundaghia and Letthebighossroll, and even Baffert's first Derby winner, Silver Charm, won major stakes at age 5.

These days, the young horses have taken over Baffert's business. He buys hot and heavy at yearling and 2-year-old sales, then lives or dies by their classic potential. Last year's crop of 2-year-olds did not pan out as planned, and he blames himself. This summer he turns a fresh page.

"It's the 2-year-olds that keep you going, keep your hopes alive," Baffert said. "This bunch I've got now is really strong. I just hope I don't have to run them against each other too much."

It has been two years since Congaree made his 2-year-old debut at Del Mar and emerged with dicey knees. After two allowance wins at Santa Anita the following winter, Congaree made a name for himself by winning the Wood Memorial and the Swaps, and finishing third in the Kentucky Derby.

It will be good to see Congaree in action again in the San Diego, especially after his disheartening loss to Street Cry in the Stephen Foster on June 15. This time around, he must deal with the likes of Euchre, Bosque Redondo, and Palmeiro.

Running for the Stonerside Farm of Bob and Janice McNair, Congaree is by far the best son of Arazi. He is agile and pleasing to the eye, with a trickle of a blaze and a dark caramel coat that glowed in the quiet recesses of his Del Mar stall at the end of Thursday's training.

"He's grown up since the last time I saw him," said Tim Yakteen, who trains Baffert's Hollywood Park stable and will deputize at Del Mar on Sunday. "And he's always been a powerful colt."

For his part, Baffert was still sorting through the hectic agenda ahead. It was important to keep things straight. Wedding, airport, War Emblem, Saratoga. Baffert's assessment of Congaree's condition going into the San Diego was "awesome." Or was he talking about his bride?