It happened again Saturday, when Union Rags nipped the trainer’s front-running Paynter at the wire and won the Belmont Stakes.
The nail-biting defeat made it three straight for Baffert in this season’s Triple Crown races. Add those to two of his three near misses with a Triple Crown on the line, and that’s quite a run of tough luck.
There’s more. Baffert also came up on the losing end of a photo finish in the 1996 Kentucky Derby with Cavonnier
This has been one rugged Triple Crown season for Baffert, who is recovering from a heart attack while in Dubai in late March. In the Derby, I’ll Have Another ran down Bodemeister in the final 100 yards and won by 1-1/2 lengths. Two weeks later in the Preakness, the result was the same, but by a neck.
Paynter drifted out a little near the finish in the 1-1/2-mile Belmont, and Union Rags got his neck in front at the wire, leaving Baffert a close-call loser again. It was another photo finish.
”Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?” Baffert asked. ”I really thought he was going to win today. He was doing so well.”
Baffert said he felt bad for owner Ahmed Zayat, who has his own string of second-place finishes. He also owns Bodemeister, and Pioneerof the Nile was second in the 2009 Derby and Nehro was runner-up in the 2011 Derby.
”The poor guy. He’s been tortured on this Triple Crown,” Baffert said.
Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who was aboard Bodemeister in the Derby and Preakness, was Baffert’s choice to ride Paynter, too. And it looked as if Smith would come through, but Union Rags relentlessly closed the gap and won it,
Smith blamed himself for the loss.
”I’m an old veteran, you know?” Smith said. ”They’re not supposed to get through on the fence on me, and he did. I dropped the ball. My fault.”
Added Baffert: ”He will probably take a lot of heat for” Union Rags moving past him on the rail, Baffert said. ”It’s a jockey thing. He didn’t want to give up the rail. But you know what, he did a tremendous job.
Make no mistake, Baffert has won his share of classics: the Derby three times, the Preakness five times and the Belmont once.
In 1997, Silver Charm won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and was 75 yards from winning the Belmont before losing by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold.
The next year, Baffert was back again, and this time the defeat was as bad as it gets. Real Quiet had a big lead in the stretch but started staggering to the finish and Victory Gallop somehow caught up and won after an agonizingly long wait for the photo finish.
In 2002, War Emblem won the first two legs for Baffert, but stumbled at the start of the Belmont and finished eighth.
After all that, Baffert still says Point Given probably was his best chance at the Triple Crown. In 2001, Point Given had a tough Derby and finished off the board, but came back and won the Preakness and Belmont in dominant fashion.
Paynter was making only his fifth start. He came into the Belmont off a win in the 1-1/16-mile allowance race at Pimlico on Preakness day, May 19. The son of Awesome Again is still learning, Baffert says, and could end up in the Travers at Saratoga over the summer.
”We were always high on this horse. It just took him a little longer to come around,” Baffert said. ”The horse is really green. He ran a hell of a race.”
But it wasn’t good enough in a race that did not include I’ll Have Another, who was retired with a tendon injury Friday, leaving racing now looking for its first Triple Crown winner in 35 years.
”Heartbreaking defeat,” Zayat said. ”He ran his guts out. What do they call that race, the Test of the Champion?’ To go a mile and a half the way he did, I am very lucky to have him. I’m very disappointed we opened the rail.”