Try though he might, Bob Baffert does not do somber particularly well. Bless his newly vibrant heart and familiar full head of thick, white hair, Baffert has for much too long been reaching into his emotional quiver and pulling up humor in all its forms (dark, light, gallows, irreverent, subtle, clunky ... pretty much everything but slapstick) to suddenly go dark and earnest on us, no matter how serious the subject. And make no mistake, the subject does not get any more serious.
Here it was the third week in April, 16 days shy of the Kentucky Derby, and Baffert had finished his morning's work training (usually) fast and (almost always) expensive horseflesh at his home base at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. The barns, including the one with a sign that advertises Baffert's three Derby winners, among other champions, were bathed in sunshine. Stable workers raked the dirt into neatly harrowed rows. It is a good time to be Baffert the trainer; in Saturday's 138th Run for the Roses he will saddle Bodemeister, a horse named after Baffert's seven-year-old son (named after Baffert's friend, Olympic gold medal-winning skier Bode Miller), who could be the favorite in the race and, more intriguingly, could also be an equine monster.
It is a more complicated time to be Baffert the human being, husband and father. In the early morning hours of March 26 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Baffert, 59, suffering from nausea, chest pains, soreness in his left arm and pretty much every other symptom listed in Wikipedia under ''heart attack,'' underwent an emergency procedure in which stents were inserted in two major coronary arteries. One of them, the proximal left anterior descending coronary artery (aka "The Widow maker''), was 100 percent blocked; another was 90 percent blocked. After the procedure Baffert's surgeon told him: "You were lucky, maybe moments away from going into cardiac arrest.''
That part is not intended to be funny. Nor is this: "I really do feel lucky,'' said Baffert, sitting on his office couch, sans his trademark sunglasses. "I'm getting a second chance. A lot of things could have happened differently and I'd be dead.''
Yet with Baffert, the trip from an operating table halfway around the world to the backstretch at Churchill Downs is a meandering journey that tries to keep to the business of life and death but mischievously detours to deliver punch lines. Because that is what Baffert has always done, whether in dusty bars on the quarter horse circuit where he started his career nearly four decades ago; or at the richest horse races in the world, tossing off jokes like a kid throwing spitballs at the teacher. It would be wrong to say that Baffert does not appreciate or comprehend the gravity of his survival. He does. But in sports when a man escapes death -- and that's what Baffert did -- it's handy to proclaim him changed. Baffert is wiser today, but apparently, and thankfully, he is not changed.
So here the story begins in the lobby of the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai on the afternoon of Sunday, March 25. Baffert had traveled with his wife, Jill, and Bode for the Dubai World Cup, a series of high-level races. He felt lousy after the long flight from Los Angeles, but at check-in he ate one of the fresh dates at the front desk. It is the only time eats a date. "A delightful date,'' Baffert said. "That's what [the late former horse owner] Bob Lewis used to say. A delightful date.''
Baffert went to the racetrack to check on his horses; they had been flown to Dubai earlier in the week. Then he came back to the hotel and canceled dinner plans because he still felt uncomfortable. "I think that date is bothering me,'' he said to Jill, laying unlikely blame on a small piece of fruit eaten 12 hours earlier. He was awakened in the middle of the night by a vibrating cellphone, because another of his horses, Princess Arabella, had won a big race in New Mexico. But he felt even worse. His wife went on the Internet and began listing those symptoms. Check, check and check. "I think you're having a heart attack,'' Jill said.
"You think?'' said Baffert.
Deep into the night, Baffert lay in a hospital bed. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of the Dubai royal family, a prodigious buyer and racer of horses and a friend of Baffert's, was informed of Baffert's illness, and soon Sheikh Mo's cardiologist was in Baffert's room.
"Best-dressed doctor I've ever seen,'' said Baffert. "He walked and I said, 'I'm calling you Dr. Armani.' I mean, he was Dapper Dan. He was the man.''
Baffert was given an angioplasty that revealed the blockages and then taken to surgery. He started telling Jill how to deal with his personal affairs, but Jill wouldn't listen. In the operating room, Baffert could hear flurries of conversation, none of it English. "I kept waiting to hear: 'This guy is totally screwed,''' said Baffert. "Later I saw Sheikh Mo and I asked him, 'What's the universal language for 'This guy is f-----?'''
In retrospect, Baffert says now he understands how he landed in that hospital. The last time his cholesterol was tested, it was a stratospheric 290. He was prescribed statins, but said he went on and off them. "My diet was horrible,'' he said.
"A lot of beef, steak all the time. Salad with blue cheese drippings. Cracker Barrel for the chicken-fried steak and eggs. And I never exercised. We've got exercise equipment in our house, but I could never find it, because of the clothes hanging on it.''
Baffert remained in Dubai for several days after the surgery. One night Bode Baffert ordered a steak from room service. "Big, red juicy filet,'' Bob said. "I asked Bode if I could have a bite. He said, 'Don't even think about it.'''
Heart disease is a function of not just lifestyle, but genetics. Baffert might have read those signs, too. His brother, Bill, has cardiac issues, as did many relatives on his mother's side of the family.
"They all had the white hair, too,'' Baffert said. He went to the races in Dubai, and his horses won nothing. "All the owners had the long faces afterward,'' said Baffert. "I said, 'Hey I know you guys are disappointed, but I'm just happy I was here to see your horses run bad.'''
He was back in California by early April and got checked out by prominent cardiologist Dr. Richard Schatz, who not only is a pioneer of coronary stent technology, but also has owned racehorses. Schatz signed off on Baffert's Dubai stenting, and on April 7, Baffert was trackside when his three-year-old, Blueskiesandrainbows, ran a game third in the Santa Anita Derby behind I'll Have Another and Creative Cause, both of whom are considered Kentucky Derby contenders. Baffert watched from the rail, but fought to restrain his emotions, lest he raise his pulse rate too high.
"Come on boy,'' said Baffert in an emotionless, soft monotone, miming his voice from that day. "Come on. That's it. Come on boy.''
He has begun the hard work of changing his lifestyle, hitting the elliptical trainer a few times and working on his diet. ("I'm really not a fish guy,'' he says).
Baffert was home on his couch on April 11, too tired for a long trip, when Bodemeister was made the 5-2 favorite in the Arkansas Derby and crushed the field by 9½ lengths, the most stunning performance by any 3-year-old in the Derby prep season (it earned a 108 Beyer Speed Figure, also the highest among contenders in what many consider a wide-open Derby). After the race, jockey Mike Smith told Baffert's assistant, Jimmy Barnes, "I didn't mean to win by that much. I just tapped him, he exploded.''
Baffert-trained horses have won three Kentucky Derbies: Silver Charm (owned by Bob Lewis) in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblems in 2002. He had odds-on favorite Point Given in 2001 and 6-1 favorite Lookin At Lucky in 2010; Point Given got cooked by a speed duel, and Lookin At Lucky drew the hopeless No. 1 post position. Bodemeister appears to be as good as any of them, although he will be challenging 120 years of history -- late-blooming Bodemeister did not race as a two-year-old, and no horse unraced at two has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882.
And Bodemeister, of course, has a piece of the Baffert family name. Bode Baffert is Bob and Jill Baffert's only child (Bob has four children by his first marriage). He was named for Miller, a skier whom Baffert admires and befriended to the point where the two men had lunch together during the 2010 Winter Olympics, where Miller won three medals.
Bodemeister, a son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, was bought for $260,000 by Ahmed Zayat at the Keeneland yearling sale in September 2010. The horse was given a name, but last spring Zayat told Baffert he was changing the name. Zayat had previously tried to name horses after Bode Baffert, but Bob Baffert had resisted. "I wouldn't let him do it,'' Baffert said. "I thought it would be bad luck.'' Baffert went so far as to put a hold on the name "Bode'' with The Jockey Club, so that no one could take the name. (The cost for this action is $100 a year).
When Baffert heard that Zayat's Empire Maker colt was nameless, he said, jokingly, "We'll just call him Bodemeister,'' around the barn. In the extended Baffert family, everybody calls Bode "The Bodemeister,'' as in texting Bob and Jill after a big race and saying, "Hey, the Bodemeister looked great on TV today.''
A little while later, official papers on the Empire Maker colt arrived at Baffert's barn. His office assistant laughed out loud when she saw the newly official name: Bodemeister. Zayat had beaten Baffert's dodge.
The colt wasn't ready to run in 2011 and made his debut by winning a five-and-half furlong race at Santa Anita on Jan. 16. On Feb. 11, he went a mile and crushed the field by more than nine lengths. (Bode Baffert was at a birthday party that day and missed it). Four weeks later Bodemeister was beaten by a hard-fought three-quarters of a length by the formidable Creative Cause in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
"He washed out in the post parade, got rank in the race, and ran really, really hard,'' Baffert said. "He came back all full of lactic acid. He needed a tough race like that to get him ready for the Derby. That race made a man out of him.''
On Sunday morning, six days before the most important horse race in America, Bodemeister worked a brilliant five furlongs at Churchill Downs, gracefully skipping over the historic surface. He will surely be among the favorites on Saturday. Baffert will be sitting in a box high above the finish line, one among 150,000, wearing a Derby suit and pleading for his colt win. In a whisper.