Baffert takes another shot
Long before Bob Baffert saddled Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby, the Hall of Fame trainer was convinced another horse under his care had far more potential to succeed.
Paynter, owned by Zayat Stables and named after one of Baffert's friends, appeared to be on the fast track to the top.
''Paynter was very highly regarded early,'' Baffert said Thursday. ''I really thought that was going to be one of my best horses. I had Fed Biz and him, and then Bodemeister kind of snuck into the lineup. He was my Jeremy Lin. All of a sudden he went from just Bodemeister to the favorite in the Derby.''
Bodemeister came in second at Churchill Downs and in the Preakness, finishing behind I'll Have Another on both occasions.
Now, in a final effort to win get the best of I'll Have Another, Baffert will take aim at the Triple Crown hopeful Saturday in the Belmont Stakes with Paynter.
''Paynter is a horse that's improving. He'll get better in the summer,'' Baffert said. ''I always had this race in mind for him. I was going to run him in the Preakness, but then Bodemeister looked like he came out of the Derby really well. When he came back I thought we were going to have to scrape him off the ground. But he jumped right back.''
On the same day Bodemeister faded in the stretch in the Preakness, Paynter won a $50,000 allowance race at Pimlico Race Course - his second victory in four career races. The first came in his debut in February over 5 1/2 furlongs. Baffert next entered Paynter in the Santa Anita Derby, and the 3-year-old colt finished fourth behind winner I'll Have Another.
Baffert has seen enough of I'll Have Another to qualify as somewhat of an expert.
''He just keeps winning,'' Baffert said. ''He hasn't gotten the respect. He's got my respect.''
I'll Have Another has never been the betting favorite in seven career races, but that will change Saturday when he vies to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in horse racing history, the first since 1978.
''You can try to dissect it, knock it, but he's the horse to beat. He's here and we're all right here,'' Baffert said, holding his hands about a foot apart. ''Right now we're all running for second. He's got to take a step backward, and we've got step forward to win.''
Baffert knows from experience that completing a Triple Crown run in the grueling mile-and-a-half Belmont is no easy chore. Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) all won the Derby and Preakness under Baffert before coming up short in the Belmont.
Since Affirmed seized the Triple Crown 34 years ago, 11 horses have won the first two races and failed in the third.
''You need racing luck,'' Baffert said.
He got very little good fortune during his three cracks at it. Silver Charm was outdone by Touch Gold jockey Chris McCarron down the stretch; Real Quiet faded to second at the end; and War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth.
Winning three straight races over a seven-week span takes more than luck. It takes a great horse, and even that offers no guarantee of victory.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle Optimizer in the Belmont, said of I'll Have Another: ''You can't deny that he's the best horse going in. but history shows us that the best horse doesn't always win this. If you go back, you've got Smarty Jones, Big Brown, Charismatic, War Emblem, Point Given, Real Quiet. Go right down the line. We all had a chance at the Triple Crown and none of those horses could pull it off.''
Having been denied three times previously, Baffert intends to seize the spoiler's role.
''They have to break well,'' Baffert said. ''He's the kind of horse, a very lightly raced horse, that needs to get away from there well and get into a groove. I'm just hoping Paynter can gut it out with him.''