Baf­fert fa­vored to win again

Vet­eran trainer says there are no sure things

Orlando Sentinel - - NBA / HORSE RACING / NHL - By Childs Walker

Bob Baf­fert will talk to al­most any­one about al­most any­thing.

Want to shut him up though? Ask him about his­tory, specif­i­cally his stand­ing in it and the records he’s on the cusp of break­ing with his lat­est thor­ough­bred su­per­star, Jus­tify.

If Jus­tify wins the Preak­ness on Satur­day — some­thing each of Baf­fert’s four pre­vi­ous Ken­tucky Derby win­ners have done — he will move his trainer out of a tie with D. Wayne Lukas and into a tie with 19th cen­tury horse­man R. Wyn­d­ham Walden for the all­time record of seven wins in the race. A win would also be Baf­fert’s 14th in a Triple Crown race and tie him with Lukas at the top of that list.

He wants to ac­knowl­edge ex­actly none of this.

“I never think about break­ing records or any­thing like that,” he said last week. “We live in the mo­ment. I have a lit­tle Bill Belichick in me. It’s on to Bal­ti­more.”

The 82-year-old Lukas will try to pre­vent Baf­fert’s as­cent by sad­dling two Preak­ness con­tenders of his own, Bravazo and Sport­ing Chance. It’s fit­ting given that Lukas was the pin­na­cle to which Baf­fert as­pired when he broke into thor­ough­bred train­ing in the 1990s.

Their re­la­tion­ship was per­ceived as prickly in those years. Lukas once lamented to the late writer Wil­liam Nack that Baf­fert arrived at the barn hours later than the other train­ers and still some­how whipped them. “How do you fig­ure it?” he groused.

But when Baf­fert went into the Hall of Fame in 2009, he asked that Lukas in­duct him. The two men have grown close, shar­ing tales of their re­spec­tive starts in the quar­ter-horse world and af­fec­tion­ate jokes about their ad­vanc­ing years or about how Lukas re­jected Baf­fert for a job com­ing out of high school.

Nowhere is Baf­fert’s rev­er­ence for the past more ev­i­dent than when he talks about Lukas. “For me, Wayne is still up here,” he said, hold­ing his hand above his head.

Lukas will hear none of it. He says Baf­fert clearly be­longs on a short list of the great­est train­ers in his­tory be­cause he’s put his mark on ev­ery facet of the sport.

“In this game, one of the things you find out quickly is who you can re­spect. That’s what bonds these re­la­tion­ships,” Lukas said. “I have the great­est re­spect for Bob Baf­fert. Yes, he has great clien­tele, but he knows what to do with them. He’s the heir ap­par­ent to all these records, and we re­ally have de­vel­oped a deep friend­ship.”

Baf­fert, 65, is the sport’s great­est en­dur­ing star, rec­og­niz­able to even the most ca­sual fan be­cause of his trade­mark shock of white hair, which he’s had since he first stormed the Triple Crown stage 21 years ago.

He might grum­ble about the end­less line of peo­ple who ap­proach him at big races, ask­ing for pictures or wish­ing to chat. But the truth is he em­braces the role, stand­ing out­side his barn far longer than nec­es­sary to hu­mor ev­ery re­quest.

The joke among long­time rac­ing writ­ers is that you keep hang­ing around Baf­fert af­ter the pack leaves be­cause he re­cy­cles the same sto­ries, but they get bet­ter and bet­ter.

Baf­fert of­ten talks about the ex­cru­ci­at­ing pres­sure he feels when he’s gifted with a horse as tal­ented as Jus­tify. He knows how fleet­ing such op­por­tu­ni­ties can be.

Even af­ter Amer­i­can Pharoah’s Triple Crown run in 2015, he watched two po­ten­tial Derby fa­vorites, Mas­tery in 2017 and McKinzie this year, fall off the trail be­cause of ill-timed leg in­juries. The cru­elty of the sport never di­min­ishes, nor do own­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions for big-race vic­to­ries.

He doesn’t want to bask in his own his­tory of suc­cess be­cause he knows it guar­an­tees noth­ing for to­mor­row.

“The dis­ap­point­ments are right around the cor­ner,” he said. “That’s why I never get ahead of my­self any­more.” The Bal­ti­more Sun

PATRICK SEMANSKY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Bob Baf­fert, above with Ken­tucky Derby win­ner Jus­tify, is horse rac­ing’s most en­dur­ing star.

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