Since trainer Bob Baffert exploded onto the Kentucky Derby and Visa Triple Crown scene with the narrow loss by Cavonnier in the 1996 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), he has become a Triple Crown fixture. He has also done everything but win the $5 million bonus that goes to the winner of the Visa Triple Crown Challenge. Silver Charm scored narrow victories in 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but was beaten by Touch Gold in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). In 1998, Real Quiet won the first two races--but was beaten by an excruciating nose by rival Victory Gallop in the Belmont Stakes. Baffert had a chance again in 2002 when War Emblem took the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but lost all chance in the Belmont when he stumbled badly at the start. Unless the unexpected occurs, Baffert will be missing this year when the Belmont cast assembles in just over two weeks at Belmont Park. Before he departed Churchill Downs on Tuesday to return home to California, Baffert said he would miss the excitement of competing for a Triple Crown, but not everything that goes with it. "What makes it so tough is you don't realize the time and effort you have to put in with the media and that's pretty exhausting," said Baffert. "It's tough. The first two (the Derby and Preakness) are exciting and the third one (Belmont), that's really the tough one and you've got to keep your horse healthy. I've gone in there thinking I couldn't lose, but we got beat." Which is not to say that Baffert is not anxious to return to Belmont Park to take a swing at the opportunity that now lies in front of trainer Barclay Tagg and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. "It's a great experience, but you can't wait until it's over," said Baffert. "When they hit the wire it's like, 'Thank God, it's over,' because you're so exhausted mentally." No matter how personally challenging the Triple Crown experience proved to be, Baffert knows the value of the publicity that surrounds a shot at that rare prize. "A Triple Crown bid is exciting but, to me, winning a Kentucky Derby is more exciting," Baffert said. "When a horse has won the first two and goes for the Triple Crown, I think that's better for horse racing. It gets people involved, they'll tune and if he gets it, he gets it. If he doesn't, it doesn't matter because the people were there and had a great time." The Triple Crown bid by War Emblem attracted a record crowd of more than 103,000 to Belmont Park for last year's Belmont Stakes. The hometown connections for the New York-bred Visa Triple Crown hopeful--including New York-based Sackatoga Stable and jockey Jose Santos--figures to make that attendance record a short-lived one. Baffert will not be at Belmont to witness the Triple Crown finale in person, but he's as anxious as any fan of Thoroughbred racing to see what happens.
"I'm going to be excited just watching it," he said. "There are going to be some nice horses waiting for him. He got an easy roll at the Preakness, but it's great. They've done a great job handling the horse and he can do it, but it's going to be tough. It's not a 'gimme'." And, having been through the experience three times since 1997, would Baffert have any pointers for Tagg, a Triple Crown rookie who welcomes the opposition to his home court? "I just recommend to him to get a new phone number and don't give it to anybody -- just do your own thing and forget about it," Baffert said. "Just have a good time and enjoy it. He could hide out -- he could rent a motor home. He could live in it and move around all over town."