Baffert adds to racing legacy

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BALTIMORE --- It's not like Bob Baffert isn't already doing everything he can to save horse racing.

But that didn't stop the trainer with the shock of white hair and the most recognizable mug in the sport from adding one more task to his list -- playing traffic cop at the entrance to the winner's circle Saturday at the Preakness. Still carrying his young son, Bode, in one arm, Baffert waded into a fast-growing crowd of well-wishers trying to crash the party.

He was trying to make room for Lookin At Lucky and Martin Garcia, the bay colt and deli-counter-guy-turned-jockey who just put him back on top of the world.

"Hold it right here," Baffert yelled. "The horse is not coming in here until everybody gets back!"

Never mind that Baffert's wife, Jill, and co-owner Mike Pegram, a close pal who first staked Baffert to enough cash to step up from the quarterhorse ranks nearly 20 years ago, were stuck on the wrong side of the yellow rope. At least until he came to their rescue.

"Yeah," Pegram said with a grin afterward, "we did have a little problem getting in.

"Fortunately, we got a lot of friends, but people have to do their jobs. I think," he added sheepishly, "we've got a reputation for breaking the rules sometimes with those winner's circle photos."

The shame is that everybody who still cares about the racket couldn't sneak into the frame. Baffert isn't just popular with the racing public, he's become perhaps the most respected member of the training fraternity. That was confirmed when the first trainer to wade through the bedlam and stick out his hand in congratulations was D. Wayne Lukas, the sport's graying eminence.

Bitter rivals once upon a time, the two are now thick as thieves. Just before the race, Baffert decided to stay out of the owners section of the grandstand and watch from the railing in front of the jockeys' box.

"Hey, Wayne," Baffert called out to Lukas just seconds before the gate opened, "what numbers we betting?"

Speaking of numbers, Baffert and Lukas are now tied for the second-most Preakness wins with five. They're also the two active trainers with the most Triple Crown wins -- Lukas has 13, Baffert 9 -- and the gap may be closing. Lukas hasn't won a Triple Crown race since 2000. Baffert's last Triple win was here with War Emblem in 2002.

"I know it's been a few years, but this was a different kind of win," he said. "This is more of a redemption win."

It couldn't have been sweeter considering everything else going on in his life. Back at the Baffert family home in Nogales, Ariz., his mother, Ellie, is gravely ill and struggling to catch every big race. Baffert fought back tears during an interview after his win, looking straight into the camera and saying, "Hi Mom."

Then there was his decision to take veteran jockey Garrett Gomez off Lookin At Lucky and replace him with Garcia. It was a move Baffert wrestled with after the colt got beat in big races -- the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Rebel Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby -- by terrible post positions, bad trips and questionable rides.

"The thing about him," Baffert said, referring to Garcia, "is that he comes from humble beginnings, and he's a very humble guy.

"Before the race, he kept thanking me for putting him on the horse. He was supposed to be worrying about the Preakness and all he kept doing was thanking me."

When someone asked what time Baffert would be at the barns Sunday morning, Pegram answered first, "He's going to be here all night."

"All night," Baffert confirmed.

Lookin At Lucky's celebration won't be anything nearly that wild, just some well-deserved rest and perhaps a shot at the last leg of the Triple Crown. Baffert said earlier in the week the 11-mile distance made him leery of the Belmont.

Yet the horse has already accomplished something big. Beaten by Super Saver in the slop at the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, he renewed Baffert's faith in the colt and maybe even in the trainer himself.


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