Baffert favored to win again
Veteran trainer says there are no sure things
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
Bob Baffert, above with Kentucky Derby winner Justify, is horse racing’s most enduring star.