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John Clay: Baffert returns to Oaks winner's circle with Sunland Park grad

LOUISVILLE — Come on now, 25 lengths.

That's not a misprint.

Last time out, the filly Plum Pretty won the Sunland Oaks by 25 lengths.

"My assistant Jimmy Barnes," said trainer Bob Baffert, "told me I've never been in a place where we were taking the winning picture and you could hear the horses finishing behind us."

So given that piece of fairly impressive evidence jumping out of the past performances, surely every one of the 110,122 who turned out to Churchill Downs for the third largest crowd in Kentucky Oaks Day history, reached deep into their wallets for the filly by Medaglia D'Oro, right?

Well no, of course not, but they should have, what with Plum Pretty holding off St. John's River in the stretch to win the nation's most important race for fillies.

Plum Pretty was the fourth choice in the wagering at odds of 6-1. That's the thing about thoroughbred racing, and especially the brain teaser that is handicapping, sometimes the best piece of information can be right under your nose and you can't even find it. Much less believe it.

"I didn't know what to think," admitted Baffert this week. "I had never had a horse win by 25 lengths before."

Not many have.

And when you see a huge number like that, first instinct is to devalue it, or dismiss it completely. Surely no other competition must have been running in that race, right? And Sunland Park? Conventional wisdom says the number of great racehorses to come out of that New Mexico resort and casino are few and very far between.

"I won my first $100,000 race at Sunland Park when I was training quarter horses," said Baffert.

Part of the problem. The thoroughbred set tends to look down its nose at tracks with a history of quarter horses. Yes, Mine that Bird won the 2009 Kentucky Derby off a score in the Sunland Derby, but he was retired after going 0-for-9 in his post-Derby performances, though his Derby-winning trainer, Chip Woolley, was on hand Friday and cheered on his former Sunland competitor.

"We root for each other," Baffert said. "Chip's a good guy, though I'm still mad at him for beating me in 2009."

That was the year Baffert finished second in the Derby to Mine that Bird with Pioneerof the Nile.

For a period of time, it was a regular occurrence to see the white-haired wonder in the winner's circle at Churchill Downs on Oaks/Derby weekend. He won the 1997 Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm. He won the 1998 Derby with Real Quiet. He won the 1999 Oaks with Silverbulletday. He won the 2002 Derby with War Emblem. But it has been almost a decade since Baffert was holding aloft a major trophy in the River City.

"It's been a long time between drinks with Silverbulletday," Baffert said. "You have to enjoy these things, because you never know when they're going to happen again."

So how did it happen that Baffert took this filly to Sunland, the racetrack and casino in New Mexico? She had raced but three times, winning her debut last October before third-place finishes in the Santa Ynez and the Las Virgenes this year at Santa Anita.

Owner John Fort wanted to take Plum Pretty to Louisiana for the Fair Grounds Oaks, but Baffert saw a confidence-building spot tucked away in a corner of New Mexico.

"We took a big chance taking her down there," Baffert admitted on Friday. "(Fort) said, 'If that's what you really want to do."

Turned out, it was the right thing to do, by about 25 lengths.

Now, if the handicappers had only believed what Plum Pretty had done.

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