Lookin At Lucky

Lookin At Lucky

Skip Dickstein

Haskin's Preakness Recap: Kismet

The good karma returned, as Lookin At Lucky had a dream trip in the Preakness.

The traditional Alibi Breakfast, held two days before the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), had just concluded, and Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman, owners of Lookin At Lucky , were milling about near the souvenir stand, ready to head down the stairs, when a crash was heard a few feet away.

There on the floor, shattered in small pieces, was the commemorative plate given to the owners of each Preakness starter, on which was engraved the name of the horse and the owner’s silks. One could barely make out Pegram’s familiar colors.

John Miller, the Maryland Racing Commission representative who was assigned to Lookin At Lucky’s owners the day before, had been carrying the plate when it slipped out of his hands.

That’s all the poor horse needed—more bad luck after four disastrous trips and drawing the dreaded post 1 in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

The always optimistic and jovial Pegram looked down at the fragments on the floor and said, “Well, at least they ain’t on the rail.”

He then burst into laughter. When Baffert, who had been referring to the colt after the Derby as Lookin At Unlucky, learned of the broken plate, he said that was the kiss of death.

But little did he know that Lookin At Lucky’s luck was about to change.

There is a saying that goes, “The amount of good luck coming your way depends on your willingness to act.”

After the Derby, in which Lookin At Lucky was shut off, squeezed, bumped into the rail, and knocked out of contention early in the race, Baffert decided not to wait for good luck any longer. It was time to act.

In a gutsy move, Baffert named 25-year-old jockey Martin Garcia, who had no experience in classic races before this year, to replace Lookin At Lucky’s regular rider Garrett Gomez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner who had won three consecutive riding titles for money won and four Breeders’ Cup races.

Baffert felt Lookin At Lucky and Gomez simply weren’t having good karma and decided a change needed to be made. Garcia and Baffert had been having good luck together, highlighted by their victory in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) with Misremembered, owned by Baffert’s wife, Jill. So Baffert decided not to wait for good luck any longer. He went out looking for it.

It took Baffert eight days following Lookin at Lucky’s sixth-place finish in the Derby before deciding to run the colt back in the Preakness. He has always been a firm believer in waiting as long as possible before making decisions, and it wasn’t until that eighth day that Lookin At Lucky gave him the go-ahead to book his flight to Baltimore.

On May 9 at 5:01 p.m. Baffert sent Jill a text message. It read simply: “We’re going to win the Preakness.” At 6:54 that same day, he sent his brother Bill the exact same text. When Jill later asked him what prompted this newfound optimism, he told her he loved the way the horse looked and the way he trained that morning. Just like that, Baffert began to have an insatiable craving for crabs.

But there was a much bigger hunger deep in the pit of his stomach. After winning an amazing eight classic races in six years, Baffert went cold in the classics. For someone who lives and breathes the Kentucky Derby and the classic spotlight, seven years without a victory seemed like an eternity. He finally showed signs of life when he finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby with Pioneerof the Nile.

So Baffert made his move and reluctantly informed Gomez he was switching riders. Gomez and agent Ron Anderson wasted no time in signing on to ride the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Dublin, who also had his share of trouble in the Derby, finishing right behind Lookin At Lucky.

On the Tuesday before the Preakness, Baffert told Garcia, who had ridden Conveyance for him in the Kentucky Derby, that he was riding Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness.

“I am, really? Wow! Thank you so much, senor, you made my day,” Garcia told Baffert.

“I said to him, ‘I’m going out on a limb, but you need the experience, because hopefully you’re going to be riding a lot of these for me,” Baffert said. “I said, ‘Look, there’s no pressure on you. You have nothing to lose.’ I was trying to downplay it and not make him nervous, and he said to me, ‘No, senor, we’re gonna win it.’ After he rode in the Derby, he was already pumped up. He won the next race for me and I think he needed that just to get rid of the butterflies. He’s a great kid, and the best thing about him is that he appreciates where he came from. Even as he was about to get on the horse (for the Preakness), he was still thanking me. “He said, ‘Thank you so much again for letting me ride the horse.’”

Baffert, who calls Garcia “Alvin” after Alvin the chipmunk, feels his story should be made into a movie. The native of Veracruz, Mexico has never seen his mother and father. His mother became pregnant with him when she was 14 and abandoned him. He was raised by his grandmother and wound up becoming a construction worker at age 11 after quitting school to earn some money. He later made his way to the U.S., where he worked at Chicago's Metropolitan Deli in Pleasanton, Calif., as dishwasher, bus boy, and cook. When the owner of the deli took him to a nearby farm to show him her horse, he hopped on bareback and proceeded to negotiate several difficult jumps, exhibiting a natural riding ability. The deli owner introduced him to a former rider, and he eventually wound up at the Pleasanton fair in Northern California, working as a hotwalker, groom, and exercise rider.

When he began riding, he showed immediate success and soon was challenging Northern California legend Russell Baze for the riding title at Bay Meadows. He captured the title at Golden Gate before heading to Southern California, where he caught the eye of Baffert, who told him, “If you want to ride for me you have to show up and work horses. Starting at 8 o’clock you belong to me.”

The one thing Baffert insisted on after giving Garcia the Preakness assignment was that he go on Youtube and study Gary Stevens’ ride on Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby. That was the prototype he was to follow, especially how to get position going into the first turn.

So, everything was in place for Lookin At Lucky to turn his luck around. On May 15, he finally lived up to his name, as Garcia gave the son of Smart Strike – Private Feeling, by Belong to Me a prefect ride and a clean trip, winning the Preakness by three-quarters of length and providing Baffert with his fifth Preakness victory and first classic win in eight years.

But the real star of the 2010 Preakness was Lookin At Lucky, whose victories in the grade I Del Mar Futurity, Norfolk Stakes, and CashCall Futurity and head defeat in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) after racing very from the 13-post earned him the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. He had become the first 2-year-old since Chief's Crown in 1984 to win three U.S. grade I races. He didn’t win his races by much, but did it with tenacity and a dogged will to win.

“It’s very rare when you get a horse who wants to win as badly as he does,” Baffert said.

Despite horrific trips in his three starts at 3, in which he was forced to check sharply each time, he still managed to win the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn in his dirt debut and finish a game third in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) before his Kentucky Derby debacle.

Because the colt wants to win so badly, it was even more frustrating and disheartening for Baffert to sit back helplessly and watch him race after race not get the opportunity to do so.

Baffert had paid $475,000 for Lookin At Lucky at the Keeneland April 2-year-olds in training sale after seeing him work an eighth in :10 flat and loving the way he moved. The colt was bred in Kentucky by Jerry Bailey and Lance Robinson’s Gulf Coast Farms and consigned by Jerry Bailey Sales Agency. Both Baffert and Bailey were impressed by the colt’s mind and professionalism.

“In addition to having a great mind, he had a real long stride and moved with such ease,” Bailey recalled. “He looked like he was crawling, but he actually was breezing pretty quickly. That was the phenomenal part about him. He took everything in stride and never got rattled. He’d just go in the barn, lay down and go to sleep, go to the track, stand there and look around, train, and go back to the barn. He did that every day.

“When he breezed for the sale, he did it so easily I was afraid to look at the teletimer, because I thought he had gone in about :12, but the teletimer had him going in :10. I was so impressed that he was able to do it so easily and still go so fast. I knew Bob was interested in him, but he was careful not to show his hand. He’s a pretty cagey guy. We would have loved to retain part of the horse, but Bob had put together the partnership (with Pegram, Watson, and Weitman), and they wanted to go in themselves.”

One of the underbidders, ironically, was EQB, owned by Jeff Seder, who is an advisor to Zayat Stables and who helped pick out Eskendereya. Seder recalls Lookin At Lucky galloping out a quarter in :21 flat and three-eighths in :33 2/5. The colt had an "A" gait, according to Seder, and a top heart scan result. Seder said his stride length was "long, low, and clean," and he was in the 75th percentile for height and 95th for weight.

After the Derby, Baffert decided not to work Lookin At Lucky. He had a hard 2-year-old campaign and two hard races at 3, and because he is a May 27 foal and hasn’t even turned 3 yet, Baffert wanted to keep the weight on him and maintain his energy level.

He wanted so badly for the colt to redeem himself and show everyone what he was capable of with a good trip, but there were still those lingering doubts about how good he really was.

“I just didn’t know what to expect,” Jill said. “I didn’t want to be disappointed again and have to make excuses.”

Bill said he felt badly because he, too, was beginning to lose some confidence in the horse.

If ever a horse personified the name of Baffert 2002 juvenile champion, Vindication, it was Lookin At Lucky. If you could change a horse’s name in mid-career, his could easily be Lookin For Vindication.

It had been a heartbreaking winter and spring for Baffert in addition to Lookin At Lucky’s misfortunes. He lost one of his promising 3-year-olds, Clutch Player, who died of pneumonia in January, and then suffered another tragedy when the brilliant Tiz Chrome broke down in a workout at Churchill Downs two weeks before the Derby and had to be euthanized.

Most of the talk at Pimlico was about Super Saver , winner of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), and jockey Calvin Borel.

Bill Casner, co-owner of WinStar Farm, stood at the gap two days before the Preakness (gr. I) watching Super Saver jog and still was on cloud nine at having captured the Run for the Roses.

“Everyone’s asked me if I’m looking forward to the Preakness, and I keep saying not yet; I want to keep soaking this one in,” Casner said. “You’re a winner until you get in the gate for the next one. I was looking at that plaque above the traditional Derby winner’s stall listing all the great horses that have been in that stall and it gave me the chills. It’s hallowed ground.”

Trainer Todd Pletcher was thrilled the way Super Saver bounced out of the Derby and, unlike Casner, was looking forward to the Preakness.

“I would love to win this one and go on to the next step and have a shot at the Triple Crown,” he said. “I know NYRA, NBC, and ESPN would love it. The two weeks is the biggest issue. I’m just hoping he can come back with another performance like his last one.”

The Preakness drew a field of 12. At the draw, Baffert sat next to Lukas. This was the moment he dreaded the most, and even contemplated scratching Lookin At Lucky if he drew the rail again. He had been looking for any excuse not to run in the Preakness, but he had no choice after watching the colt train.

Then the pills were drawn. “Number 1 goes to…” Baffert stiffened and braced himself. “…Aikenite.” Baffert ran his fingers across his forehead and went, “Whew.” Then the number 7 was announced. This was Baffert’s favorite post. Could he actually get lucky this time? “Number 7 goes to Lookin At Lucky.” Baffert broke into a big smile and gave Lukas a thumbs up. “OK,” he thought, “someone wants him to win now.”

Lukas was in a different situation. He did not want Dublin drawing the far outside post, because of the colt’s tendency to duck out at the start. When Dublin did indeed draw post 12, Lukas was not happy and made a quick getaway.

In addition to Super Saver, who drew post 8, and Dublin, the Preakness field included Paddy O'Prado, third in the Derby, and the hard-knocking Jackson Bend, who finished a troubled 12th in the Derby. The newcomers included Caracortado, First Dude , Schoolyard Dreams, Aikenite , Yawanna Twist, and Pleasant Prince.

Super Saver was made the 9-5 favorite, with Lookin At Lucky 2-1, Paddy O’Prado 7-1, and Dublin 9-1.

At the break, Lukas’ worst fears were realized when Dublin ducked out badly and Gomez had to steady him to avoid running into the outrider’s pony. Dublin was completely off stride and struggling well back in last. Gomez died manage to get him to the rail, but he was already some 15 lengths off the pace.

Lookin At Lucky broke well, and when Garcia got him in a good position within striking distance of the leaders going into the first turn, Baffert began getting a good feeling about the colt for the first time in a while. Garcia was able to ease out for clear sailing as they headed down the backstretch, with the massive First Dude setting testing fractions of :22.91 and :46.47, followed by Super Saver, Jackson Bend down on the inside, Caracortado out in the clear, Yawanna Twist in behind Jackson Bend, and Lookin At Lucky, who was only five lengths off the lead.

As they rounded the far turn after three-quarters 1:11.22, First Dude still maintained a length advantage over Super Saver, as Lookin At Lucky moved up quickly on the far outside, while Super Saver surprisingly began dropping back.

“OK, here he comes,” Baffert thought. “No excuses now.”

When Lookin At Lucky moved up alongside First Dude at the head of the stretch, Baffert had only one thought in his head. “This is what we wanted. Now let’s see what he’s made of.”

Lookin At Lucky collared First Dude, with Caracortado also rallying to his inside. Jackson Bend was in behind the leaders with nowhere to go and Yawanna Twist was putting in a good run on the outside.

Lookin At Lucky gained a narrow advantage just before the eighth pole, but First Dude was hanging in there gamely. Yawanna Twist was a threatening presence, but it was Jackson Bend who finally eased out and split horses that was running strongest of all. But Lookin At Lucky, as usual, dug in, and refused to let Jackson Bend or First Dude get by him.

Lookin At Lucky crossed the wire three-quarters of a length in front of First Dude, who ran a remarkably game race, as did Jackson Bend, who was a head back in third, and one length in front of Yawanna Twist.

Also remarkable was the fact that Dublin, who was pretty much out of the race, moved out five wide around the far turn, bulled his way through traffic, and then closed fast to finish fifth, beaten 5 3/4 lengths after trailing by as much as 17 lengths.

Super Saver tired badly, finishing a well-beaten eighth. “I thought we were in a good spot and it looked like the colt was relaxed,” Pletcher said. “He was traveling well down the backside, but you could tell around the far turn he was empty. I thought Calvin gave him a perfect trip. This was back a little quick for him. Now we’ve got time to come back for a big summer. I wouldn’t trade the Derby for anything.”

Borel said, “He just wasn’t able to get there today. I’ll win a lot of other races with this horse. He’s a good one.”

The final time was a solid 1:55.47, with the final three-sixteenths run in a strong :19 1/5.

“I almost fell off my chair,” said Jill Baffert. “But I didn’t care. He’s such a fighter.”

Both Dale Romans, trainer of First Dude, and Nick Zito, trainer of Jackson Bend, were proud of their horses, and Jackson Bend’s owner, Robert LaPenta, seemed as elated as if he had won. “What an amazing performance,” he said. “What a little tiger.”

Romans, said of First Dude, “He ran a monster race. When he saw Bob’s horse, he dug in and came again. I’m very proud of him. We’ll ship him to New York for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and get there early so we can get a few works over the track.”

Zito has Ice Box  and Fly Down for the Belmont, and will give Jackson Bend a well-deserved rest. Lookin At Lucky flew back to California the morning after the race and most likely will point for the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth.

“He had a hard 2-year-old campaign, he’s still growing, and because he’s such a late foal, I want to give him some time and freshen him up,” Baffert said. “I’m just so happy for the horse. He deserved this and to have his name up there with all the Preakness winners. He laid his little ears back and just kept digging in.”

After the race, Baffert sent a text message to Garrett Gomez, saying, “Sorry the way it worked out.”

This was a special moment for Baffert’s longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes and his wife Dana, who exercises Lookin At Lucky.

“It’s so rewarding, just because of all we’ve been going through since the Santa Anita Derby; actually since the Breeders’ Cup,” Jimmy said. “It’s been one frustration after another. I left Churchill Downs with a bitter taste in my mouth. But he finally got the trip he needed and he showed what kind of horse he is. This horse wants to win and he laid it down and gutted it out like he’s done so many times before.”

“He’s just like a happy kid,” Dana said. “He’s like, ‘Whatever you want me to do I’ll do it.’ What makes this so special is that, although we’d won four Preaknesses, Jimmy and I have never been here at the same time, because one of us had to take care of the kids.”

Jimmy added, “It’s so great for us to be together and enjoy it, and we’re so happy for Martin. That kid rides his heart out.”

Bill, who is a longtime friend of both Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, took great satisfaction in having been here for four of Bob’s Preakness victories.

It’s been 13 years since Baffert stormed on the scene with Silver Charm and became an instant rock star, with his milky white hair and quick wit. Back then, Pegram, who owned 1998 Preakness winner Real Quiet, would bring his young grandson Gator to the big races, but Gator, who is now finishing up high school, admits he doesn’t remember much about those days.

Now, it is Baffert’s son Bode, who is about the same age Gator was back then, who is a fixture at the races. Jill and Bob realize Bode will not remember all this and the recognition he generates, with the crowd yelling out his name on the walk over to the paddock.

“It’s like the changing of the guard,” Jill said about Gator and Bode.

But now there is one difference. “I’ll remember this one,” Gator said after the race. “This is special.”

What made this race even more special for Baffert was that his parents are still alive to see it and enjoy it. His mother has been ill for several years and this was a tonic for her as she watched back home in Nogales, Ariz.

“It means so much that my parents were able to see this,” Baffert said. “It’s keeping them alive watching these big races. It’s more for my parents than anything else. My mother’s (Ellie) been hanging in there, but it’s tough. I spoke to her after the race, and she said, ‘Dad and I were cheering, and I kept saying ‘You did it.’ And I got to see my baby (Bode) on television.”

Ellie said the next day. “That was just tremendous. You know, Bobby has won three Derbys, but I’ve never gotten so many phone calls as I did after this race. Maybe it’s because he hadn’t won (a classic) in a long time. But I’m so happy, and I’m proud of ol’ Bobby. He bounced right back; I always knew he would. Bill called and told me about the crowd cheering Bode before the race. I’m crazy about that baby. All my kids have grown up and he’s the only baby I have left.”

Pegram summed up the feelings of his partners when he said, “We’re all luckier than hell to have each other and to have a horse like this. We all know we’ve been blessed and the horse keeps showing us how blessed we are.”

Long after the races, Watson was still trying to figure out how to cash his winning tickets. He slipped through a small opening in the Maryland Jockey Club tent and went up to the mutual clerk who was still there. After telling her who he was, he had to wait until someone arrived with a bag of money, at which time the mutuel clerk proceeded to count out a stack of bills for him.

She then congratulated Watson and asked him, “Is your name in the program as the owner or are you just part of a syndicate?”

Watson paused for a second and replied, “Hey, you’re lookin’ at lucky.”

The following morning, everyone had already shipped out, and only Baffert’s horses remained. Unlike the frenzied party atmosphere of the night before, all was quiet, except for the occasional chirping of a robin. Baffert leaned against the fence and said, “You know, it was so easy getting up this morning. The morning after the Derby I couldn’t drag myself out of bed. But when that alarm went off today I jumped out of bed and couldn’t wait to get to the barn and see the horse and talk about the race again.”

Baffert then leaned his head back ever so slightly, took a big whiff of the cool morning air and said, “Aah, smells like…victory.”

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