One name jumped off the page when I got my ballot for this year’s horse racing Hall of Fame inductions at Saratoga: Bob Baffert.
I first met the trainer in 1991 when I became public relations director at Santa Anita Park. Baffert then was known as a quarter-horse trainer trying to switch to thoroughbred racing. Obviously he did pretty well.
After training three Kentucky Derby champions and scores of Grade I stakes winners, Baffert is likely to be voted in unanimously, unless some mindless voter wants to make a name for himself.
I say this because Baffert has done much to promote horse racing over the years, especially during the three years his horses just missed winning the Triple Crown. I was working for ABC Sports when Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) won the Derby and Preakness, but missed in the Belmont. Baffert’s third near miss was with War Emblem (2002).
I am convinced Silver Charm would have won the Belmont, except he never saw Touch Gold coming at him. In deep stretch, Gary Stevens was leading with Silver Charm toward the inside while wily Chris McCarron took Touch Gold out near the crown of the track. Silver Charm loved a fight, but he saw his foe too late.
The gut wrencher of all Triple Crown near misses came the next year with Real Quiet. Before the Belmont, Baffert had buttons made for “The Fish,” as his horse was called. From a second-floor owner’s box in the minutes before the race, Baffert tossed hundreds of buttons down to fans in the grandstand. That Belmont crowd was the most electric I have seen at a racetrack.
Real Quiet had a four-length lead inside the furlong pole. Then Stevens, the same rider who rode Silver Charm, made a perfectly timed move on Victory Gallop to nose Real Quiet at the wire.
Baffert handled winning and losing with equal grace, and his tireless efforts created a lot of new fans for the sport.
• FREE SEMINAR — I will host a free handicapping seminar at noon today at the Aliante Station race book, during which I will go over today’s Santa Anita card and answer questions from the audience. The first 50 attendees will receive a free copy of my book “Betting on Horse Racing for Dummies.”
• M RESORT — My old friend Lou D’Amico is managing the state-of-the-art race and sports book at the new M Resort, which opens at 10 p.m. Sunday.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.