BALTIMORE - In thoroughbred racing, allies shift constantly. A jockey will high-five a trainer after a victory, then try to beat his horse in the next race. The trick is to change partners while keeping the rivalries friendly.
Trainer Bob Baffert, 62, and jockey Gary Stevens, 52, teamed with Silver Charm in 1997, when Touch Gold canceled their Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes. A year later, Baffert was the fall guy again when Stevens and Victory Gallop nosed out Real Quiet at Belmont Park to prevent a sweep.
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It was business, not personal, so no hard feelings.
The Hall of Famers will be on opposite sides in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, when Stevens will try to upset Baffert's fourth Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharoah. Stevens and Firing Line battled down the stretch before losing by a length at Churchill Downs. Baffert's other Preakness colt, Dortmund, ran third, his only defeat in seven starts.
"I got more out of Firing Line than I got out of any horse in the past two years," Stevens said. "We like where we're at. It's the first time American Pharoah really has been tested, so it will be interesting to see how he came out of it. And Dortmund, getting beat the way he did, did it knock some heart out of him?"
In 2001, Baffert and Stevens collaborated with Point Given, who dominated the Preakness and Belmont after flopping as the Derby favorite. That summer, Stevens briefly became a hostile ally after Point Given's Haskell victory at Monmouth Park.
Shortly before post time, Baffert had an outrider remind Stevens to have his whip in his left hand entering the stretch because Point Given tended to drift toward the rail. Stevens was insulted, later saying of course he'd planned to do that and "Does he think I'm an idiot?"
As he sat on Point Given while waiting to enter the winner's circle, Stevens blistered Baffert for his last-minute micromanaging. It was very strange to see a rider yelling at somebody for whom he just won a $1.5-million race. Within a half-hour, Stevens had cooled off and the partnership didn't end.
Baffert would rather see someone other than the crafty, position-conscious Stevens on his most dangerous Preakness rival. In the Derby, Stevens pressed Dortmund through leisurely fractions and took the lead before American Pharoah came at him.
"Gary is a great, great rider, and he's a very smart rider," Baffert said. "I had a feeling the Derby was going to set up like that. He's on a mission, just like I am. As we get older, we're not going to get too many more chances."
Baffert has five Preakness trophies. Stevens has three, plus three Derbys and three Belmonts. Two years ago, the galloping grandfather stole the Preakness by setting slow fractions on 15-1 shot Oxbow. That shocker came four months after Stevens ended a seven-year retirement because of chronic knee problems that required 14 operations.
During his hiatus, he was impressive as a racing analyst on NBC and HRTV. He also received good reviews for his portrayals of jockeys in the movie "Seabiscuit" and the HBO series "Luck." Whatever he does, he thinks it through and often excels.
Trainer Simon Callaghan, a 32-year-old transplanted Englishman, said, "Gary's a rider who's been extremely lucky for me. And for these top-end races, I don't think you can have anyone better than Gary on your horse. Gary had Firing Line in a perfect spot, we just got run down in the end."
Often, if the Derby pace is on the slow side, as it was this year, the Preakness fractions will be fast, or at least quicker. Stevens will try to create the best trip for Firing Line while being prepared for any scenario.
"If there's somebody in front of us, they're probably going way too quick," he said. "If we're allowed to do what we did in the Derby, it could be the same result. I'm going to be worried about my own horse and not necessarily what games are being played behind me or in front of me. If they're going slow, I'm going to be up very close. If they're going fast, I can sit back."