Trainer Bob Baffert: The silver-haired dude with a golden touch

The oft-troubled sport of thoroughbred horse racing may have a solution for its well-documented woes right in its midst. All it needs to do is clone Bob Baffert.

Baffert, the white-haired trainer with the fast one-liners and faster horses, ruled the day in Saturday’s Hollywood Gold Cup at Betfair Hollywood Park. In a result as stunning as the Yankees overspending on a player, Baffert’s Game On Dude won by a length and a half over Baffert’s Richard’s Kid.

You could have emerged from a cave in Siberia and picked this result.

Game On Dude paid $2.80, $2.20 and $2.10 and Richard’s Kid paid $2.60 and $2.10. Had you been wild and crazy and gone for the $1 exacta (a bet on the first two horses), you could have cushioned your retirement fund by $2.70. Or, with a really gutsy play on the trifecta (first three horses), $5.30. The show horse, Kettle Corn, was the third betting choice and paid $2.60.

If success breeds more of the same and generates interest, than Baffert is just the ticket. This is not a new story in racing, but it is always a good one.

Baffert is a Hall of Fame trainer. He has won nine Triple Crown races, seven Breeders’ Cup races and so many graded stakes that counting them is tiring. This year, his horses finished second in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont and he joked afterward, “Is there a Triple Crown for second places?”

That’s part of the attraction. Baffert is not only successful, but colorful. Many in racing want to stay in the background, success or failure. Baffert is always ready for his close-up. He is also always ready to share the moment.

Chantal Sutherland rode Game On Dude, as she has for most of the five-year-old gelding’s career, and her victory was the first by a female jockey in the 73-year running of this prestigious race, this year’s with a $500,000 purse.

When Sutherland and Game On Dude turned for home in good command and track announcer Vic Stauffer told the crowd that a victory would be a female first, Baffert said, “I got goose bumps.” He said he saw Richard’s Kid starting to make a run and got a bit worried for Sutherland.

“I hoped it [Stauffer’s call] wasn’t the kiss of death,” Baffert said.

But Game On Dude pulled away again.

Little did Baffert know that, at the same time he began to worry, Rafael Bejarano, aboard Richard’s Kid, was warning Sutherland by yelling, “I’m coming, Chantal.” It didn’t happen, and Sutherland joked later, “We’re friends, and it was just like, ‘I’m coming to get you.’ Like a game of tag.”

Interestingly, Bejarano, among the winningest jockeys in the country, probably has spent more time aboard Game On Dude than Sutherland. Baffert has him work the horse in the mornings, but Sutherland gets the race rides. Bejarano rode Game On Dude in one race, in January 2011 at Santa Anita, and won.

Baffert’s non-explanation explanation: “She gets along good with that horse. They are a good fit.”

Of her milestone as the first female jockey to win this race, Sutherland said, “I hope I’m one of many more to come.”

This was Baffert’s fourth victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He won with his 1998 Derby/Preakness winner Real Quiet in 1999, with Congaree in ’03 and with First Dude last year. That victory was by a nose, over Game On Dude and Sutherland, and it triggered a story, as so many things do with Baffert.

“I was sitting with both sets of owners last year,” he said, “and when the finish was so close, they were all kind of asking who won. I just said, quietly, ‘Well, I guess I did.’”

Game On Dude is owned, in part, by Joe Torre, along with the Terry Lanni Family Trust, Ernie Moody and Bernie Schiappa. The victory gave the horse a spot in the Nov. 3 Breeders’ Cup Classic. That is part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” program for certain races and it comes with $10,000 in travel expenses. Since the Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita this year, that will make Game On Dude’s 300-yard walk from Baffert’s barn to the paddock worth about $35 a yard.

Even with Derby and Preakness winnerI’ll Have Anothermaking his last appearance in a short walk-around on the main track before heading for Japan and stud duties, the on-track attendance was a meager 6,434. In its day, which wasn’t terribly long ago, the Hollywood Gold Cup would draw closer to 35,000. But its day, as well as horse racing’s, appears to be long gone, even for a race that began its history with a victory by Seabiscuit.

But to his credit, Baffert keeps trying. In the victory circle, he made sure everybody was taken care of and included in the picture. When they had to pause so Sutherland could dart over to the scales for her official post-race measurement, Baffert was ready for that, too.

“That’s the only time it is OK to weigh a woman,” he quipped.