It Turns Out That Her Favorite Horse Is a Big Longshot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Katie Fitzgerald, a little girl with glasses from Lewisville, N.C., was at Bob Baffert's barn at Churchill Downs, hoping to meet the trainer of Point Given and Congaree, the favorites in today's Kentucky Derby.

Baffert obliged, breaking from his busy schedule.

Katie, 9, suffers from acute lymphocytic leukemia, and is here because the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted her wish to attend the Kentucky Derby.

Blushing profusely, Katie shyly stuck out her leather-bound autograph book and Baffert signed it.

"Who's going to win the Derby?" Baffert asked.

Katie said nothing and kept blushing.

"Come on," Baffert said again, "who do you think is going to win the Derby?"

More blushing.

"Point Given or Congaree?" Baffert said.

Katie shook her head.

"Arctic Boy," she finally said, barely above a whisper.

"What?" Baffert said, feigning shock. "Arctic Boy? Gimme that autograph back."

What Baffert didn't know was that earlier in the morning, Katie Fitzgerald had been to Arctic Boy's barn, and that colt's trainer, Tony Richey, had let her sit on the 50-1 longshot for about 20 minutes. Even for a 9-year-old, it's "What have you done for me lately?"

Putting a little girl on the back of a Derby horse just before the race is an extraordinary courtesy, but in Katie, Richey was getting no beginner, and he quickly cultivated a loyal fan.

Katie began taking riding lessons three years ago and has continued riding since her treatments began. She's here with her parents, Mike and Karen Fitzgerald, and her sister Sarah, who is 7.

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The Baffert entourage, not as large as it was when Silver Charm gave him his first of two consecutive Derby wins in 1997, has been increasing daily. Baffert's parents are here. When his mother Ellie and his sister Norie arrived, Baffert was waiting for them at the hotel, with a dozen roses for each. On Derby eve, Baffert hosted a party of more than 20 at the aptly named Furlongs, which arguably serves up the best Cajun cuisine in town.

Baffert, 48, has three brothers and three sisters, some of whom were uncomfortable when the trainer's marriage disintegrated a few years ago. Bob and Sherry Baffert had four children, ages 7-15, and Sherry was well liked by her in-laws. Thus, Bob and Bill Baffert, his brother, are no longer 1 and 1A in the comedy department at Triple Crown races.

Baffert prefers to keep his marital difficulties private, but friends say his breakup was doubly damaging because of his family's attachment to Sherry Baffert. In Baffert's 1999 autobiography, "Dirt Road to the Derby," which was written with Steve Haskin, there is little mention of Sherry. But at one point, Sherry is quoted this way:

"When Bob made the move from Arizona to Los Alamitos [Race Course in Orange County], we got married and I started having children. What I didn't like about it was Bob's schedule. He never went to the barn quite as early as everyone else, but once he got there, he'd hang around, then go out to lunch. He'd come home and take a nap and have dinner, then it would be time to go back to the track for the [night] races, and he'd be gone until late at night. After our son Taylor [now 15] was born, I remember being super lonely on the weekends, watching all the families together with their kids, and it was just me and Taylor."

Baffert is romantically involved with Jill Moss, a former news anchor at a Louisville television station. Moss, who grew up in Nashville, Tenn., has moved to California. A regular presence at Baffert's barn, Moss posed with Baffert and the owners of Congaree in the winner's circle after his win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct three weeks ago.

The staff at a hotel near Churchill Downs, where Baffert and Moss stay, was taken aback several days ago when Moss showed up with pillows and linen she had brought from California.

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Baffert talked about his quarter horse days at Los Alamitos a few days ago. He switched to thoroughbreds in 1991, after having won 978 quarter horse races. There's a big difference between the breeds in purse structure: In 17 years of training quarter horses, Baffert's horses earned $7.2 million; Silver Charm, who was retired in 1999, earned almost $7 million all by himself. Captain Steve, still in training, has earned $6.5 million.

"After I won the Breeders' Cup [Sprint] with Thirty Slews [1992], I said, 'This is OK,' about thoroughbreds," Baffert said. "I was going to give myself three years to see if I could do it with thoroughbreds. I really don't like thoroughbreds, but I was getting bored with quarter horses.

"The quarter horse game is more laid back. I think those guys are more friendly. I don't know how to explain it, but the thoroughbreds have more corporate types. The emphasis in thoroughbreds is managing the horses as much as it is training them."

A 1-2 finish by Point Given and Congaree today would be worth $982,000--including $812,000 for the winner--and a trainer's customary 10% commission would make for a $98,200 cut for Baffert. Asked about a rumor in California that he had a substantial future-book bet on Congaree, Baffert reached for his wallet. He produced two $100 win tickets, bought in late February at a racebook in Las Vegas.

"I shouldn't be showing you this," Baffert said. "The tax man might have to come after me."

One ticket was on Congaree, at 150-1 odds. The other showed odds of 75-1. Together they would pay $22,500.

Congaree is only 5-1 on the Derby's morning line. He was a maiden, with only one start, when the bets were made. Since then, no rival has come close as he's won three consecutive races.

Derby experience--nine starters in the last five years--has not stilled Baffert's jumpy nerves.

"He's a worrywart," said Gary Stevens, who rides Point Given.

Baffert doesn't reject the label.

"Nobody's relaxed," he said. "You don't ease off until your horses are saddled and on the track. Until then, I'm like a snapping turtle. I snap at almost everybody with impatience."

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