Bob Baffert, Santa Anita’s leading trainer seven straight years from 1996 through 2003 when he won a total of 292 races, is off to perhaps the best start of his career through the first nine days of the current meet, with 10 wins, five seconds and two thirds from 22 starts.

At his present pace, the Hall of Fame trainer who turns 58 next Thursday, could eclipse his Santa Anita record of 47 victories established during the 1997-98 meet.

“I don’t really pay much attention to things like that,” Baffert said during a training break at Clockers’ Corner Saturday morning. “A lot of the success is due to conditions for (allowance) maidens, plus we came here ready to run. But we were on a pretty good roll at Hollywood Park (where he finished fourth in the standings with 12 wins from 47 starts).

“I finally got the stable built up pretty well. It took me a few years to get it built back up, and the races have been going (filling). That’s the important thing. Things click, you know. It goes in waves. We’ll probably slow down eventually.”

Baffert was one of the driving forces for a return to traditional dirt at Santa Anita. Obviously, he hasn’t been disappointed.

“That has a lot to do with why we’re doing so well,” he said. “These are good horses, they’re fast horses. They’re getting over the dirt and they’re coming back in good order. With all the rain we had, we were worried there for a while. But the good thing about this dirt, you don’t have to train a horse so hard. Before, you had to really train them harder to get them ready for the synthetic races. “This track, you don’t have to. It’s easier on the horse.”


Mike Smith’s ride of a lifetime is over, but the memory will live forever. The Hall of Fame jockey’s racing days with the legendary mare Zenyatta came to a close when she was retired to become a broodmare after suffering her first defeat, losing by a head to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last Nov. 6.

Prior to that, she made history by winning her first 19 starts, each in the same, signature last-to-first style that captured the fancy of racing fans worldwide and thrust her name into the lexicon of mainstream America, a la Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

Yet despite her flare for fantastic finishes, if she isn’t named Horse of the Year when the honor is announced at the 40th annual Eclipse Awards dinner at the Fountainbleau Miami Beach Hotel in Florida on Jan. 17, and finishes second to Blame, it would mark the third straight time Zenyatta was second in Horse of the Year voting. She was runner-up to Curlin in 2008 and second to Rachel Alexandra in 2009, even though she became the first female to defeat males in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita that year.

To her legion of worshippers and Team Zenyatta—headed by owners Jerry and Ann Moss, trainer John Shirreffs, his wife and Moss racing manager Dottie Ingordo-Shirreffs, and, of course, Smith--it would be an omission of incalculable magnitude should Zenyatta be left at the altar again.

“It’s not even worth bringing up, as far as I’m concerned,” Smith said when asked about Horse of the Year. “She should be, without a doubt, that’s just my opinion. Of course, if you ask me, she should have been three-time Horse of the Year. All the other connections that are involved are great people and great families. I’ve been blessed to have ridden for all of them and I wish them luck, but I believe we deserve it.

“She is really happy where she’s at right now, which is great to see,” the 45-year-old Roswell, N.M., native said of Zenyatta, who is at the Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Ky., preparing for her first season as a broodmare. “She seems to have settled in really well, so that’s the main thing. I was with her in Kentucky when she first went there, but I haven’t been back since. But I plan on going really soon.”

Meanwhile, Smith is looking forward to many more successful years in the saddle. But with an easy-going demeanor, a succinct and candid way with words and a smile that can light up the room, Smith would seem an ideal fit with camera and microphone, should he be so inclined when he decides to hang up his tack. But that day doesn’t appear to be on the horizon anytime soon, especially with winning rides like he put up on 6-5 favorite Mother Ruth in Friday’s Kalookan Queen Handicap.

“Just because Zenyatta retired, that doesn’t mean I’m going to,” Smith said. “I’m not ready to do that. I feel as good as ever and I’m riding as good as ever. I have some good barns, and I’m enjoying myself as much as ever."

FINISH LINES: Cost of Freedom, winner of three straight stakes for John Sadler, was one of 200 main track workers, drilling five furlongs Saturday morning in 1:00.20 for the $200,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint on Jan. 29. Regular rider Joe Talamo was up…Caracortado went four furlongs on turf for Mike Machowsky in :48.40 (dogs up), also with Talamo aboard. “We’re about 75 percent for the Sunshine Millions Turf (at Santa Anita) as opposed to the Classic (at Gulfstream Park),” Machowsky said. “I got him in 10 and four the last eighth of a mile. He finished strong.” . . . Chantal Sutherland, who has a prominent role in the upcoming “Luck” television series on HBO, resumes race riding at Santa Anita today and will stay until Woodbine opens in early April, agent Tommy Ball said . . . Eric Guillot, who gave Kerwin John a leg up on Elle Dehere to win Thursday’s first race, has little sympathy for Southern Californians who complain about cold and wet weather. “This is nothing,” said the garrulous Louisiana native, who has 20 head at Santa Anita. “I’ve been wearing this raggedy sweatshirt every day out here. Back in Louisiana, we used to have rain day in and day out. It would rain 10 inches before noon, not in a week, and it’d be 30 degrees, not 60. All in all, the weather is still better here than back east; it always will be. We have extreme weather in Louisiana. You freeze in the winter, and in the summer, the mosquitoes are as big as Stealth bombers. That’s all you hear back there in the summer: ‘Close the bleeping screen door…’”