Last Saturday night, for the first time in a year, trainer Bob
Baffert was finally at peace with what had happened to him early
last May--comfortable at last with himself and his place in the
history of his sport and profession.
Baffert was standing in the middle of the Kentucky Derby Museum
theater at Churchill Downs, sipping from a bottle of beer at the
traditional postrace party honoring the winner of the Derby,
when he sensed that the demon hounding him for so long had been
banished. Nearly three hours earlier Baffert's fluidly moving
iron-gray colt, Silver Charm, had won the 123rd running of the
Kentucky Derby by a head, after stubbornly holding off Captain
Bodgit's late charge down the final straight. Now, as Baffert
stood among hundreds of revelers, the lights in the theater grew
dim, and he glanced up at the screen to face once again the
worst moment in his life.
It was May 4, 1996, all over again, and the first horse Baffert
had ever entered in the Derby, a leggy bay named Cavonnier,
looked for all the world like a winner as he drove by the
faltering Unbridled's Song at the eighth pole and began to pull
away. Just as a delirious Baffert thought he had the race won,
Grindstone came charging on the outside, whittling Cavonnier's
lead to a neck and then a head. They were nose and nose as they
hit the wire. When the photo showed Grindstone the winner by a
whisker, Baffert lapsed into a state approaching shock--and,
ultimately, into a yearlong depression.
Before this year's race, Baffert had visited the museum and
attended its Derby show, a nostalgic, 15-minute slide
presentation with a stirring soundtrack. Near the end of it,
with his arms breaking out in goose bumps, Baffert was suddenly
watching Cavonnier's Derby and listening to the call of
Grindstone's charge to the wire. Baffert left the museum
repeating to himself: I've got to win one of these!
Now here he was on Saturday night, watching that replay again at
the party being held in honor of Silver Charm, hearing the call
as Cavonnier and Grindstone fought to the finish. This time,
when it was over, Baffert turned away and said, "It doesn't
bother me anymore."
How could it, after what had taken place that afternoon? In one
of the finest Derbies in years--a wide-open renewal in which the
principal riders rode cleanly and smartly and nearly all the
horses ran to form--jockey Gary Stevens brought Silver Charm
from off the pace with a rush at the top of the stretch, where
the colt seemed to lower himself through the 200-yard dash to
the eighth pole. There he snatched the lead from the gutty Free
House, his pale nemesis from California (who had edged him twice
in their three previous meetings). But it wasn't over. In the
final 16th, jockey Alex Solis and the late-charging favorite
Captain Bodgit came surging to Silver Charm's throat. With
Stevens and Solis doing the huck-a-buck in their saddles,
derrieres gyrating and whips slashing, the Charm cocked his head
to the right and fixed the Captain with his right eye, as
Affirmed used to do alongside Alydar, seeming to dare him to get
by. The two hurtled that way, as a team in harness, down to the
wire, with the gray holding off the bay to win by a head.
The roaring climax brought to a close a bizarre Derby week. It
was a week in which Seth Hancock, the president of Claiborne
Farm, who was upset at the media for a variety of past sins,
refused to say a word in public about his colt Pulpit, one of
the prerace favorites. As the head of the most prestigious
breeding farm in America, a major leader of a sport in trouble,
Hancock had picked the worst time imaginable to behave like an
adolescent pouting in his room.
It was also a week in which trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had run
at least one horse in the Derby for the last 16 years, decided
at the last minute to enter the obviously hopeless Deeds Not
Words, prompting a local columnist to call him a "megalomaniac"
who wanted to be the talk of Derby week. Lukas thus kept alive
his streak, but the horse finished dead last. (Ironically, Lukas
had nominated nine horses for this Triple Crown series on behalf
of Bob and Beverly Lewis, who also own Silver Charm; not one of
those nominees made it to Churchill Downs. In a further touch of
irony, Lukas had trained last year's Derby winner, Grindstone.)
Ultimately this week belonged to the 44-year-old Baffert, an
affable former quarter-horse trainer and 1977 graduate of the
University of Arizona, where he majored in animal science. "I
actually majored in campus wildlife," says Baffert, the son of
an Arizona cattle rancher. "This is the year of the white-haired
guys from Arizona. I want to put the Derby behind me this year
like Lute Olson put the Final Four behind him."
In the days leading up to the Derby, Baffert was clearly a man
on a quest to avenge the bitter loss of a year before. By 1996
he had been training thoroughbreds full time for only five
years, but he had emerged as a leading conditioner of stakes
horses, had already saddled the winner of one of the nation's
premier events--Thirty Slews, in the 1992 Breeders' Cup
Sprint--and had won a Santa Anita training title, in 1995.
Although Cavonnier had won the 1996 Santa Anita Derby for
Baffert, the trainer was hoping only that the colt would hit the
board in his run for the roses. But after watching the stretch
duel with Grindstone, Baffert was sure his colt had dropped his
nose in front at the wire. "We won!" he yelled.
"I think you ran second," Baffert's wife, Sherry, offered.
"You don't even go to the races," said Baffert. "How in the hell
do you know?"
Then he saw Grindstone's rider, Jerry Bailey, smiling as he
galloped out. Baffert waited in an anxious gloom as the photo
was developed. It showed Grindstone winning by the snip of a
nose. Baffert had won the Derby, then he hadn't. "I had the
feeling for 30 seconds!" he said. "For a month after that I was
in such a deep depression. I was depressed all year. I thought
I'd never get a chance again."
In fact, by the day Cavonnier got beat, the tumblers had already
fallen into place for Baffert's return this year. In the week
before the '96 Derby, he had spent $85,000 for what he described
as a "big, strong, long-striding colt" out of Florida. Baffert
has been buying modestly priced horses for the Lewises since
1991, and two days after purchasing the Charm, Baffert called
Bob Lewis and offered the colt to him. Lewis accepted, and
Baffert started to train the youngster. By the end of the
summer--during which the precocious Silver Charm won the Del Mar
Futurity and ran his earnings up to $177,750--Baffert had
started plotting his return to Louisville. "The Derby was the
goal all the time," he says. "I wanted to get back here."
The colt got sick in October and missed the Breeders' Cup, so
Baffert waited until Feb. 8 to crank him up again, in the San
Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. Silver Charm smoked through seven
furlongs in 1:21 flat, winning by 1 3/4 lengths, then just
missed in the March 16 San Felipe, finishing second, beaten by
three quarters of a length by Free House. In the Santa Anita
Derby on April 5, he got sucked into a withering speed duel
early, lost the lead to Free House in deep stretch but battled
back to lose by just a head. "He's got so much fight in him,"
says Baffert. "He digs down and finds something extra."
They were off to River City. The colt flourished in the bracing
Kentucky air, and he looked stronger and sharper through each
morning drill. "He loves the track and the cool weather,"
Baffert kept saying. "When the gate opens, I'm gonna scream like
hell and hope we get it done."
Ninety minutes before race time, Lewis materialized at the
Baffert barn to join the Silver Charm entourage on the long walk
to the paddock. Lewis was chatty and in good humor, Baffert dour
and edgy. At one point Lewis shook his trainer's hand. "Boy,
your hands are clammy!" Lewis said.
"I'm not nervous," Baffert replied. "I'm dyin'."
On the walk over, the 72-year-old Lewis strode proudly next to
his colt, whose mane and tail were fluttering in the wind. "When
this thing is all over," he told Baffert, "I might sign on as a
hotwalker." At another point Lewis looked at his colt and
exclaimed, "Doesn't this horse look great?"
He never looked better than he did in the final drive. After
taking the lead at the eighth pole, Silver Charm watched the
Captain come to him, digging deeper and deeper as Solis and his
colt strained futilely to catch him. For Baffert the race from
the 16th pole to the wire was terrifyingly reminiscent of the
'96 Derby--as if, in a nightmare replay, he were watching
Grindstone run down Cavonnier again. "Please, God," Baffert
prayed, "don't do this to me again."
He wasn't the only one experiencing deja vu. Stevens, who had
twice previously won the Derby, glanced over and saw Captain
Bodgit coming. In the jock's room after the race, Stevens told
Solis, "I looked over and saw you, and I thought, Oh, no! It's
gonna happen to Baffert again."
In his box seat Lewis had the same horrifying vision. "I
thought, Good Lord, that can't happen again."
At his ranch in Nogales, Ariz., Baffert's 74-year-old father,
Bill, sat eight feet in front of his TV set and stared as
Stevens beat a tattoo on Silver Charm. "I thought, Oh, no!" Bill
Baffert said. "Don't let happen what happened last year. Gary,
don't miss a lick with that stick."
As Stevens and Silver Charm swept under the wire, it seemed that
the whole of the Downs went limp. "I was numb," Baffert recalled
later. There was a wait for the result of yet another photo
finish to be announced, but this time the trainer knew that the
nose in front belonged to his horse--and that the feeling would
last for a lot longer than 30 seconds.