Baf­fert again at top of his game

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - By David Whar­ton

Trainer makes a fourth try at end­ing Triple Crown drought.

It takes only a minute or so to walk from the race­track at Santa Anita Park to the barns in back. Through the park­ing lot and down a dirt path, the man with the shock of white hair and os­trich-skin cow­boy boots waves at ev­ery­one who calls his name.

Peo­ple want to shake his hand and congratulate him. They all say pretty much the same thing. Just one more win. Bob Baf­fert qual­i­fies as a rock star in the world of thor­ough­bred horse rac­ing, in­stantly rec­og­niz­able by that hair and the dark sun­glasses he wears, even on a cloudy morn­ing.

The 62-year-old trainer has guided his lat­est star pupil, Amer­i­can Pharoah, to vic­to­ries at the Ken­tucky Derby and Preak­ness Stakes. One more win — at the Bel­mont Stakes this Satur­day — would se­cure the Triple Crown, a feat no horse has ac­com­plished in al­most four decades.

Baf­fert has been here be­fore. Three times he has trav­eled to the Bel­mont with a shot at the crown only to fall short.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent vibe for me this time,” he says. “I’m re­ally en­joy­ing it.”

His smile ex­udes con­fi­dence as he stops to chat with state of­fi­cials and track work­ers, telling sto­ries, get­ting a laugh or two.

As one of the win­ningest train­ers in the his­tory of the sport, Baf­fert has set­tled on an un­ex­pected ap­proach to the Bel­mont. He says: “I’m pre­pared to lose.”

The Baf­fert ranch, nes- tled close to the Mex­i­can bor­der, wasn’t any­thing spe­cial. The fam­ily kept cat­tle and enough chick­ens to sup­ply eggs to restau­rants in No­gales, Ariz. As Baf­fert says: “There was noth­ing rac­ing about us.”

But then his fa­ther bought some in­ex­pen­sive quar­ter horses, which are smaller than thor­ough­breds and built for speed over shorter dis­tances. Bill Baf­fert — ev­ery­one called him “The Chief ” — plowed a dirt track into the oat hay field out back and 10-year-old Bob started rid­ing each morn­ing be­fore school.

“It was just some­thing he wanted to do,” Bill told The

Times in 1998, four years be­fore his death. “He was never afraid, but I was. I thought he might get hurt.”

The son be­came pro­fi­cient enough over the next few years to earn $100 a day as a jockey in match races on the out­skirts of town.

“Guys would gam­ble,” he says. “It was a ‘My horse is faster than your horse’ deal.”

Next came sanc­tioned races at lo­cal tracks, and Baf­fert earned his first victory in 1970 while still a teenager. He stud­ied an­i­mal sciences at the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona, mar­ried a woman named Sherry and tried sub­sti­tute teach­ing, all the while keep­ing one foot in the game.

That in­cluded work­ing with quar­ter horses at a farm in nearby Prescott.

“I never learned from a real trainer so it was trial and er­ror,” Baf­fert says. “Mostly er­ror.”

His first win­ner as a trainer at Ril­lito Park in Tucson made only $330 from a $600 purse, but peo­ple took note of the 20-some­thing new­comer with pre­ma­turely white hair and stark am­bi­tion. When sev­eral lo­cal train­ers got caught dop­ing horses, they asked him to run their sta­bles un­til they re­turned from sus­pen­sion.

“All of a sud­den, I started win­ning races,” Baf­fert says. “I was the king of Ari­zona.”

Los Alami­tos seemed like a log­i­cal next step. The Or­ange County track, which ran only quar­ter horses in those days, had bet­ter races and big­ger purses. Through the mid-1980s, Baf­fert worked his way up to be­come a top trainer.

It wasn’t sim­ply ex­pe­ri­ence — all those morn­ings on the fam­ily ranch — that fu­eled his suc­cess. He showed a keen eye for tal­ent and an in­stinct for coax­ing speed out of an an­i­mal.

“You want them to have fun,” he says. “If I don’t like the way a horse looks, if he has his ears pinned back, I’ll send him to the farm, let him go be a horse for a while.”

A prom­i­nent owner, fast-food mag­nate Mike Pe­gram, per­suaded Baf­fert to try thor­ough­breds, which seemed like an­other world. The horses could be tem­per­a­men­tal. The peo­ple wore Rolexes and ar­rived at the track in fancy cars.

“I show up with my cow­boy hat and pickup truck,” Baf­fert says. “I was scared to death.”

The new guy main­tained a con­fi­dent fa­cade but also asked lots of ques­tions, pick­ing the brains of es­tab­lished train­ers such as Char­lie Whit­ting­ham, Laz Bar­rera and es­pe­cially Wayne Lukas, who had also started with quar­ter horses. Baf­fert gave him­self three years to make it or leave.

Thirty Slews, pur­chased for $30,000, won the pres­ti­gious Breed­ers’ Cup Sprint in 1992. Cavon­nier nearly won the 1996 Ken­tucky Derby, fall­ing short by a nose.

More vic­to­ries trans­lated into more own­ers knock­ing on the barn door, bring­ing good horses.

The late 1990s saw Baf­fert en­ter a tor­rid streak, as three of his pro­teges — Sil­ver Charm, Real Quiet and War Em­blem — dou­bled-up at the Ken­tucky Derby and Preak­ness. A small sta­ble that used to earn less than $2 mil­lion a year now brought in six times as much.

Not that Baf­fert was unan­i­mously popular. Call it self-as­sur­ance or ego, but his per­son­al­ity rubbed some peo­ple the wrong way.

“With a guy who’s won so many big races, you’ve got to re­spect him,” says Doug O’Neill, an­other South­ern Cal­i­for­nia trainer who guided I’ll Have An­other to the first two-thirds of the Triple Crown in 2012. “But it’s a com­pet­i­tive thing.”

There were strained re­la­tions with jock­eys Baf­fert hired and quickly re­placed when they failed to pro­duce.

He says: “I can get mad and snap at peo­ple. If a horse loses, I’m moody.”

No one wins all the time. Cer­tainly not in horse rac­ing. Even when Baf­fert was on a roll, he re­peat­edly came up short at the Bel­mont with Sil­ver Charm los­ing by three­quar­ters of a length in 1997 and Real Quiet fin­ish­ing sec­ond by a nose the fol­low­ing year.

“A nose,” Baf­fert says, winc­ing be­hind those sun­glasses. “That was a bru­tal beat.”

About that time, his mar­riage to Sherry, with whom he had four chil­dren, was dis­in­te­grat­ing and he was seen in the com­pany of a younger woman, a Louisville tele­vi­sion an­chor named Jill Moss. That did not sit well with many in the con­ser­va­tive realm of horse rac­ing.

Then came a string of unim­pres­sive re­sults at the Ken­tucky Derby through the mid-2000s. Crit­ics won­dered if his ca­reer was on the wane.

Maybe it was time to re­group. Baf­fert mar­ried Jill in 2002 and they had a son, Bode, named af­ter the Olympic skier Bode Miller. The three were of­ten seen to­gether at the track as Baf­fert con­tin­ued to pur­sue what he calls “this mad­ness — I’m think­ing horses 24-7.”

Morn­ings were spent at the track, watch­ing his horses run and speak­ing by walkie-talkie to the rid­ers, telling them how far to go and how hard to push. Back in the barn, he checked on nu­ances of ap­petite and be­hav­ior.

“I don’t think I could do his job,” says Vic­tor Espinoza, the jockey who will ride Amer­i­can Pharoah on Satur­day. “There are no days off.”

On a trip to the Dubai World Cup in 2012, Baf­fert suf­fered from what he thought was a bad case of indigestion. When the pain stretched past mid­night, Jill got on the In­ter­net to do some re­search.

Was he feel­ing nau­se­ated, she asked. Did his left arm hurt?

“Oh my god, I’m hav­ing a heart attack,” he re­calls telling her. “I thought I was toast.”

A rick­ety am­bu­lance took him to the hos­pi­tal, where doc­tors in­serted three stents. The emer­gency surgery was a suc­cess, but more bad news awaited him back home.

Seven horses in his sta­ble at Hol­ly­wood Park died mys­te­ri­ously over the course of 16 months, prompt­ing Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials to in­ves­ti­gate. Though au­thor­i­ties cleared Baf­fert in late 2013, they noted that he reg­u­larly gave all of his horses a thy­roid drug to en­hance their strength.

It was a com­mon prac­tice at the time, but Baf­fert quickly backed off, say­ing: “The last thing in the world I want to be known as is a cheater.”

The of­fice at his Santa Anita barn feels cramped and clut­tered with a desk and a couch, and win­ner’s cir­cle pho­tos on the pan­eled walls. Flies zip through the still air.

It has been a long morn­ing of pre-Bel­mont in­ter­views, but Baf­fert keeps talk­ing with all the alacrity that has made him a me­dia fa­vorite.

“I’ll tell you some­thing,” says Baf­fert, who lives in La Cañada-Flin­tridge. “Amer­i­can Pharoah is spe­cial.”

The horse owned by Ahmed Zayat of­fered a glimpse of good things to come with an ef­fort­less win at the Arkansas Derby in April, prompt­ing Jill to say, “I’d bet­ter get a dress.” For the Ken­tucky Derby, she meant.

If the sub­se­quent victory at Churchill Downs seemed work­man­like — Amer­i­can Pharoah off his game — the Preak­ness was ex­tra­or­di­nary, a dom­i­nat­ing run in rain and mud. Baf­fert mar­veled at how the 3-year-old ap­peared to float, cov­er­ing ground so eas­ily.

“I’d like to take credit,” he says, “but Bode could prob­a­bly train this horse.”

Still, com­plet­ing the Triple Crown will be dif­fi­cult.

The Bel­mont cul­mi­nates a hard stretch of rac­ing with a 11⁄ 2- mile dis­tance that is longer than the Derby or the Preak­ness. Much of the field skipped one or both of the crown’s first two legs, so the com­pe­ti­tion will be rested.

Though Amer­i­can Pharoah is a heavy bet­ting fa­vorite, only 11 horses have man­aged to achieve one of sport’s most elu­sive feats, none since Af­firmed in 1978, so Baf­fert is keep­ing his ex­cite­ment in check. He says: “I’ve seen a lot of great horses get to this point and lose.”

It seems the jour­ney from a No­gales ranch to the top of the thor­ough­bred scene has taught him im­por­tant lessons about pa­tience, and maybe even a touch of hu­mil­ity.

“I still make mis­takes,” he says. “But I have a lot more pa­tience.”

Al Bello Getty Images

TRAINER BOB BAF­FERT WATCHES Amer­i­can Pharoah get a bath at Bel­mont Park, where he will try to be­come the first Triple Crown win­ner in 37 years.

Char­lie Riedel As­so­ci­ated Press

BOB BAF­FERT AND WIFE JILL watch a train­ing ses­sion at Churchill Downs in April. A few days later, Amer­i­can Pharoah would be­come the fourth horse trained by Baf­fert to win the Ken­tucky Derby.

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