Golden State racing tarnished, but still without equal

Jul 5, 2005 12:13 AM

"An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last."

Winston Churchill

There are many factions currying conciliation in California racing, like ravenous vipers on Medusa’s head, each needing to be sated.

Therein lies the problem, says Bob Baffert, a native of Nogales, Arizona, but a Californian through and through since he started training in the Golden State some 17 years ago.

Pessimists can point to any number of ills, including a shrinking on-track fan base, the high cost of racing, a diminishing horse population, milkshaking controversies and foot-in-mouth disease perpetuated by prominent horsemen.

"California racing is still strong," Baffert said. "It’s just that people in California are worried about their own business. Everybody seems to be fighting everybody and they don’t want to tackle the big picture because they’re more concerned with their own agenda. Horsemen in California are dealing with insurance and other problems. Horse owners are knowledgeable businessmen but they don’t always respond rationally when it comes to racing, like they would about a problem in their primary business. In that case, they would do something about it.

"Even though racing is a business, it seems nobody wants to step on anybody’s toes. If a guy’s got a big name and a big reputation, he doesn’t want to be reading anything negative about himself. Take the Marty Wygod controversy. Nobody came to his aid because everybody is so jealous they loved to see it all unfold. It was ridiculous. Now the guy is probably burned out on racing in California and you can’t blame him.

"Trainers had the HPBA (Horsemen’s Protective and Benevolent Association) and we were strong with that group, but once it was broken up by (R.D.) Hubbard and the TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) we lost our clout. Tracks worry about getting more people to the races but we need to concentrate on keeping the people who are already here coming back.

"Another problem is the (racing) competition is so damn tough here. Jockeys these days don’t save any horse. Everybody just leaves the gate and runs as hard as they can early. Tracks are souped up. One day it’s deep and loose and one day it’s fast. But say what you want, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Even though we complain, California is still the best."

And there’s always Del Mar, a horsey version of Girls Gone Wild by the blue Pacific, where the 52-year-old Baffert annually unleashes his royally-bred 2-year-olds.

"Del Mar is the no-brainer meet," said Baffert, who won the training title there seven consecutive years (1997 through 2003) until unseated in 2004 by Doug O’Neill. "Everybody likes to go there even though it’s expensive. A change of scenery is welcome. Racing is very negative this time of year. Traffic getting to Hollywood has made it unpopular.

"I’ve got a lot of nice young horses for Del Mar by all the top sires, Fusaichi Pegasus, Storm Cat, Real Quiet and the new sire, Tiznow." Enforcement, a $350,000 son of Tiznow, made his debut at Hollywood Park Sunday. Impressive maiden winner What A Song (a $1.9 million son of Songandaprayer) is scheduled to start in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship July 16.

Baffert, a three-time Kentucky Derby winner who twice narrowly missed capturing the Triple Crown, essentially was on the outside looking in this year. With talented Roman Ruler sidelined with foot problems, in a move that bordered on desperation, Baffert saddled outclassed 61-1 shot Sort It Out to a 17th-place finish behind 50-1 shot Giacomo in this year’s Derby.

"I think Afleet Alex definitely was the best horse (in this year’s Triple Crown races)," Baffert said. "It seems like everybody blew their wads in the preps. Bandini was done; (Nick) Zito’s horses were done. But Afleet Alex was always in the top five and he was survival of the fittest. A horse like Afleet Alex got no respect because it was the first time his connections had been to the Triple Crown and they had trouble with the press at Oaklawn (for the Arkansas Derby). They were mad at them. I think Jeremy Rose would love to have that Derby ride back, but he came out of the Triple Crown twice the rider he was going in because he gained the confidence knowing he can ride with anybody."

The homestretch

With 14 wins in 49 starts (29 percent) along with 18 seconds and one third (67 percent in the money), Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale is enjoying a remarkable Hollywood meet. Drys-dale reports turf specialist Red Fort, runner-up in the Grade I Whittingham Handicap, is getting a break and that Stage Shy could make her next start in the Grade I John Mabee Handicap at Del Mar on July 23.

"A mile and an eighth may be too short for her," Drysdale said. "I’d rather run her longer but don’t know if I can find a spot."

”¡ The reason California race tracks do not offer alternate selections on the Pick Six is fear of a security breach, as happened in the Breeders’ Cup Pick Six scam in 2002. Incredulously, technology is not yet available that would provide a fail-safe system.