Trainer Bob Baffert returns to the Kentucky Derby with the top two favorites, American Pharoah and Dortmund.
ARCADIA, Calif. — Say this for Bob Baffert: He made winning the Kentucky Derby look easy. And it is not easy; it is one of the most difficult things in all of sports. It’s almost impossible just to qualify to run in the race at all. Winning the Run for the Roses is a lot like cashing a lottery ticket. But here was Baffert—a wisecracking former quarter horse trainer who made prematurely white hair look cool, rocked sunglasses 24/7 and had not a drop of blue blood in his body—cashing tickets seemingly every year. He first came to the Derby in the spring of 1996 and finished second with a horse named Cavonnier, who was beaten by just a nose at the wire. Baffert then won the next two Derbys, with Silver Charm in ’97 and Real Quiet in ’98, and each of those horses narrowly missed winning the Triple Crown. He got beat with favored Point Given in 2001, but a year later won the Derby again with War Emblem, after convincing one of his owner-clients to buy the horse just three weeks before the race. He was 49 years old and had won three Derbies; only three men in history had won more. It was an astonishing run. “I was like, Man, this is gonna be fun to keep coming back here,” says Baffert. “Now I know what can happen.”
Which is to say: A lot, and not much of it fun. Baffert is 62 now. As he stood on the track apron at Santa Anita last week on a cool California morning, he looked very much like an actor playing the part of Famous Horse Trainer Bob Baffert. He still has the white hair, a little thinner now. He still wears the sunglasses, more stylishly. He’s still a sound bite waiting to happen. But things are different, too, which happens when a man gets older. Tread comes off the tires gradually, in thin layers, and eventually the tires aren’t quite same. Baffert divorced his first wife in 2001 and remarried a year later; the four children from his first marriage, who were in grade school when he started winning Derbys, are all in their 20s now, and Bode, the 10-year-old son from his second, has never seen his dad raise the Derby Trophy above his head. Bob’s parents, who were at Churchill Downs for his early wins, have both passed away. Three years ago he had a heart attack and required life-saving surgery while preparing to race a horse in Dubai. At nearly the same time, seven of his horses died when they had heart attacks, which prompted an investigation by the California Horse Racing Board that eventually absolved Baffert of any wrongdoing.
In those same 13 years since he last won America’s most important race, Baffert has started 12 horses in the Derby and has lost in every imaginable way. He lost with Pioneerof the Nile in 2009 because jockey Calvin Borel got a crazy-fast rail ride on 50–1 shot Mine That Bird. He lost in 2010 because 6–1 favorite Lookin At Lucky drew the dreaded No. 1 post position and got pinballed into defeat in the first 50 strides of the race. “I wanted to get up and go beat the traffic after an eighth of a mile,” says Baffert. (Lookin At Lucky came back to win the Preakness). He lost in 2012 because I’ll Have Another ran down Bodemeister, named after Baffert’s son, in the final strides after Bodemeister had set a scorching pace for most of the race. That day Baffert did leave the track in a rush, and talked on the phone later, choking back tears.
Baffert also has been compelled by owners to start half a dozen horses who had no chance at all of winning—“The worst feeling,” he says—and in four of those years he had no starters at all, in part because he had lost several deep-pocketed owners who had been supplying him with talented horseflesh. (Owners: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them). All of this, he says, has humbled him, an ongoing lesson in the harsh realities of asking a 3-year-old horse to run farther than it has ever run before.
Now Baffert is back—like never before and quite possibly like no trainer in history. He will saddle two starters in Saturday’s 141st Kentucky Derby, and they could be the first and second betting choices in a field that many racing experts consider to be the deepest and most talented in many years. The likely Derby favorite is Baffert’s American Pharoah, a son of Pioneerof the Nile and an effortlessly fast glider who has won two prep races by a combined 14¼ lengths, and who could be a transcendent racehorse. The second choice could be Baffert’s undefeated Dortmund, a towering chestnut who so often banged his head on the ceiling of the shedrow outside his stall that Baffert’s staff had to pad the beams with foam rubber.
“I’m on edge,” Baffert said last week in California. “And I’m sure I’ll stay on edge. There’s a lot of anxiety, but it’s a good anxiety. It’s just amazing that I have two top caliber horses in my barn this year.”
(There are other ways to put this. Several weeks ago I texted Baffert a few questions and at one point I asked if he was doing a lot of knocking on wood, racetrack superstition for any trainer with good horses in the barn. Baffert shot back: “Holding onto my balls.” Sure enough, a potential third Baffert starter, Santa Anita Derby runner-up One Lucky Dane, was injured in a workout and pulled out of the Derby. In racing, there is not enough wood to knock and there are not enough balls to hold.)
The travails of the last dozen years have left their mark on Baffert. And they have made him want another Derby even more. But they have also made him understand that it’s not as easy for anyone as it was for him in the beginning. They have helped him to understand the moment in a different way, regardless of how it ends. “I’m older, I appreciate this more now,” says Baffert. “It’s like that young kid who won the Masters. There’s no way he can understand. Trust me, I’m at a point in my life where I can understand.”
It starts with American Pharoah. He is owned by Ahmed Zayat, an Egyptian-born, New Jersey-based businessman who was first introduced to Baffert by bloodstock agent Brett Lindenbaum in 2005. “I had known Zayat for 20 years at that point,” says Lindenbaum. “He’s very competitive, very emotional, and at the time he was buying horses like crazy. I said to him ‘What are you doing? You’re spending money like it’s the last year of your life.’ He said, ‘I’m trying to win the Derby.’ I said, ‘You’re not going to win the Derby until you meet Bob Baffert.’ ” Lindenbaum got Baffert and Zayat together in 2006 on a filly named Point Ashley, who won two stakes races. The two men did not immediately get to the Derby together.
Baffert’s relationship with Zayat lasted only a couple of years. “He was new to the business, very emotional,” says Baffert. “I like to be left alone. And it’s hard for [owners] to do that because they’re control freaks. That’s how they made it big in the first place. But it was stressful for me. He fired me, and it was a good firing. I was relieved.”
But in 2008 Zayat and Baffert reunited. Together they had a long talk about how their relationship would work. “Now we’re like good friends, me and Zayat and his son, Justin,” says Baffert. “We have mutual respect.” Fast horses will do that to a relationship. Together they nearly won the Derby with Pioneerof the Nile. Last spring, Zayat sent Baffert videos of several of his horses then training in Florida. “It was this video where you could hear people chatting and talking as the horses were working,” says Baffert. “Then American Pharoah comes down the lane and it’s like totally quiet and somebody says ‘Wow.’ ”
Zayat sent American Pharoah to Baffert last spring and, initially, the colt was unruly and stubborn. He was beaten in his first race, after which Jill Baffert said to her husband, “If this is our best horse, it’s going to be long summer.” Assistant trainer Pascual Rivera, 52, who had been the groom for 1988 Derby winner Winning Colors, called the colt pendejo, Spanish slang that, roughly translated, means idiot, among other things. Rivera worked tirelessly with American Pharoah, grooming his emotions. “He’s a sweetheart now,” says Rivera. In the colt’s four wins, no horse has been closer than 3¼ lengths at the finish. His eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby on April 11 was easily the most visually impressive of any of this year’s prep races, and earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, the third-highest of any Derby starter, despite the fact that Pharoah was scarcely urged by jockey Victor Espinoza.
The second-highest Beyer figure (106) was earned by Baffert’s Dortmund while winning the Santa Anita Derby on April 4 by 4¼ lengths. Baffert purchased Dortmund for owner Kaleem Shah after the Preakness last year at a 2-year-old sale in Maryland for the bargain price of $140,000. Shah, 52, an Indian-born entrepreneur who made his money as the founder and CEO of CALNET, a telecommunications company, is the son of a thoroughbred trainer. He began sending horses to Baffert roughly five years ago. Together they won the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern, who outlasted Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. (Baffert says he has also had conversations with Shah about the owner-trainer relationship. “I told Kaleem once, If we’re outside the stable gate, your IQ is way higher than mine,” says Baffert. “But once we get inside, yours goes down and mine goes way up.”)
After Shah bought Dortmund, Baffert sent the strapping colt to a farm to mature. He was long-legged and awkward, and the workers called him, “Dorky.” In the colt’s first race, last November at Santa Anita, Dortmund fell back to sixth place, but then rallied to first in just a few long strides. “After that race, [jockey] Martin [Garcia] came back and he was white,” says Baffert. “He said, ‘I thought he was going crash right into those other horses.’ ”
Dortmund is the same height as champion mare Zenyatta, and many handicappers wonder if he is nimble enough to handle Derby traffic. Baffert says not to worry. “He’s quick, he’s fast,” says Baffert. “He’s just a plodder in the morning, but he’s fast in the afternoon.”
In 2001, Baffert came to the Derby with the strong one-two punch of Point Given and Congaree, but both lost after getting cooked by the insanely fast fractions run by race leader Songandaprayer. Racing luck is always in play at the Derby, with its ridiculously large field of 20 horses. “You have to break clean,” says Baffert. “If you miss the break in the Derby, it’s over.”
This year’s Derby has what appears to be a remarkably strong field. Trainer Todd Pletcher will send out the likely second or third betting choice, Carpe Diem, who easily won the Blue Grass Stakes on April 4 (“[Pletcher] hasn’t even turned him loose,” says Baffert). Pletcher will also saddle Materiality, who scored a 110 Beyer in winning the March 28 Florida Derby, but who is trying to buck history—he did not race as a 2-year-old, and no horse unraced at two has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882. Among the other contenders, Louisiana Derby winner International Star is undefeated in 2015 and Frosted was rugged in winning the Wood Memorial. Even Mubtaahij appears to be the first of many horses shipped from Dubai to actually have a chance to win. Firing Line chased Dortmund to the wire twice before winning the softer Sunland Derby on March 22 by 14 lengths.
Baffert knows all of this. If he’s cocky, he’s hiding it. (Which he has done before. In 2002, War Emblem was working splendidly, but Baffert played down his chances every morning, in hopes that others would concede him the early lead, which they did.) “This is the like the NCAA Tournament, with the brackets,” he says. “Horses from the East, the South, the West. We really don’t know which ones are better until we race each other. I’ve got good horses, but other guys have good horses, too.”
He is at his barn now, leaning on a sawhorse as the California sun rises. He will soon leave for Kentucky and the noise that annually engulfs the Derby favorite. It’s not easy to win the Derby. He understands that now. “Get me to the three-eighths pole with a shot,” he says. “That’s what you hope for.” So simple once, and now almost like a longing. All the sweeter if it happens.