Baffert's leap sets up Lucky's victory
BALTIMORE -- At 6:54 p.m. last Monday, Lookin At Lucky trainer Bob Baffert sent a text to his brother, Bill:
"We're going to win the Preakness."
That was a remarkably confident declaration coming just nine days after the colt's dispiriting sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. But Baffert believed in hard-luck Lucky, an accomplished horse whose 3-year-old campaign had been compromised by trouble-filled races. And Baffert believed in the scantly known former deli cook he'd decided to let ride his colt in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
As jockey changes go, this one was a leap of faith. Baffert was sacking Garrett Gomez, the nation's leading rider in earnings the past four years and a two-time Eclipse Award winner as the top jockey. He was replacing him with Martin Garcia, a tiny 25-year-old who had never ridden in a Triple Crown race until finishing 15th on Conveyance in the Derby two weeks ago.
But after Gomez had ridden Lookin At Lucky into disastrous traffic jams in the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby, something had to change.
"It's like being in a craps game," Lucky's co-owner, Mike Pegram, said. "The dice ain't going right? Go to another table. Martin is our new table."
Pegram spoke that horse sense with a hoarse voice at the end of a sun-splashed Baltimore afternoon. He'd just finished watching Garcia vigorously urge Lookin At Lucky to a 3/4-length victory in a thrilling stretch duel with three competitors -- First Dude to his inside, Jackson Bend and Yawanna Twist to his outside. Kentucky Derby champion Super Saver, looking spent by mid-race, faded to eighth place -- the worst Preakness finish by a Preakness favorite since 1959 (discounting Barbaro, who broke down in 2006).
Just like that, Calvin Borel had been shoved off center stage by a 5-foot-1, 103-pound Mexican who grew up on a ranch in Veracruz but stumbled into the saddle in America.
Garcia was a cook at Chicago's Metropolitan Deli in Pleasanton, Calif., where his boss just happened to own a horse. One day she put him on the mare's back and was astonished by his natural riding skills, so she introduced him to a trainer at Alameda County Fairgrounds.
Garcia got his jockey's license just five years ago. At that point, riding the fair circuit and smaller tracks in northern California, competing in the Triple Crown was inconceivable. But once Garcia started to make a name for himself and then arrived at the more elite Southern California circuit, he asked Baffert to exercise his horses in the mornings.
He did a good job, and Baffert -- a former rider himself on the quarter-horse circuit -- gave him a shot in the races. The trainer gave him a leg up out of obscurity, and Garcia has delivered with increasing frequency in increasingly bigger races. By the time Baffert got to Kentucky for the Derby, he was raving about Garcia at every opportunity.
"I think we're batting about 40 or 50 percent right now in stakes races," Baffert said. "He's very light, he's got very light hands. When [he's on a horse's back], they think they're loose. He's got a gift, like all the great ones, the Shoemakers, all the great riders. He just really fits my horses well. Reminds me a lot of Gary Stevens."
Comparisons to Shoemaker and Stevens put Garcia in heady company -- but he looked like a rising star Saturday.
Blessed with a workable No. 7 post, Garcia coolly guided Lookin At Lucky into the second flight of horses behind pace-setting First Dude and Super Saver. With less than half a mile to go, Garcia still was sitting in fifth place, but from there he asked Lucky to go and surged into the lead heading into the stretch. In the final furlongs, Lucky repelled challenges from either side to earn Baffert his fifth Preakness victory but first in eight years.
But Baffert and Pegram both were quick to say that Lookin At Lucky might have won with Gomez in the saddle as well -- the biggest factor was a better post position than the Derby. The colt was stuck in the No. 1 hole in that race, which is a poor draw in a rough-and-tumble 20-horse field.
"Everyone was gut shot at the draw," Bill Baffert said.
Brother Bob's gloom was palpable that day. Talking to him at a party the night of the Derby draw, you could tell he'd all but abandoned hope of winning. Three days later, his worst fears were realized shortly after the gates opened, when Lucky was abruptly shut off twice and shuffled some 20 lengths behind.
"In the first 1/8-mile at Churchill, I threw things and kicked things," Pegram said. "But at the end, you just put your happy face on."
By that point, it was tougher and tougher to smile about a horse everyone had been so high on for more than a year.
They named him on April 15, 2009 -- which also happened to be Bill Baffert's 60th birthday. Karl Watson, one of Lucky's ownership partners with Pegram and fellow Tucson car dealer Paul Weitman, threw the party at his house.
Years earlier, Pegram, Watson and Weitman had first partnered on a horse they called Midnight Lute. Pegram saw the two at Midnight Lute's first race and asked what they knew about the horse. Nobody knew a thing.
Pegram jokingly said, "You [bleepers] better be lucky." Midnight Lute won that day and was a promising colt until being sidelined by health issues.
Since then, Watson often would point to himself and tell his partners, "You're lookin' at lucky!" When Bob Baffert told the owners at that birthday party that they needed to come up with a name for their promising 2-year-old, they went with Watson's catch phrase.
Thus a completely inappropriate name was born. A talented colt was undercut time and time again by rough trips and bad posts, yet overcame them to win six of his first seven races. But he couldn't overcome Gomez's awful ride in the Santa Anita Derby or the No. 1 hole in the Kentucky Derby.
After the disaster two weeks ago, Baffert contemplated putting Lucky on the shelf and skipping the Preakness.
"I was going to take him home [to California]," Baffert said. "I was very disappointed. ... All of a sudden he started coming around by [last] weekend."
Buoyed by the colt's robust rebound from the Derby, the trainer made the call to try the Preakness. And then the call to change jockeys. And then, last Monday, Bob Baffert sent the text to his brother that called his shot.
Saturday, Lookin At Lucky and Martin Garcia made him look like a prophet.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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