DERBY ALITTLE DIFFERENT FOR BAFFERT NOW
Okay, so let’s fess up, Bob Baffert is one of the top trainers in the Thoroughbred horse racing game if not at the top of the heap. But if you look at the cool cat from California, his perspective on the world’s most famous race may have changed just a bit over the years.
Hailing from Nogales, Arizona, Bob Baffert broke into the Thoroughbred training ranks in 1988 with a handful of horses before going full time in 1991 with a much bigger operation. Before that, the University of Arizona graduate had been involved in the Quarter Horse game as his parents were owners. Steadily building, Baffert burst into the national spotlight when he narrowly missed by a nose in the 1996 Kentucky Derby with Cavonnier. Coming back in 1997 with Silver Charm, Baffert celebrated in the winner’s circle and then repeated in 1998 with Real Quiet. Three starts, two wins and a second, this Kentucky Derby stuff was no problem it appeared for this silver-haired slickster.
“That narrow loss in 1996 was one of the worst days of my life,” says Baffert. “But we bounced back and then I thought I was really smart winning back to back. It is so easy to get caught up in the magic that is the Kentucky Derby. A lot of it is luck of course when you have a winner if you consider all the factors. Winning the Derby is like a dream. It really is quite an experience. You can’t put a price on the bragging rights that come with winning the Kentucky Derby.”
Baffert returned to the winner’s circle beneath the twin spires again in 2002 with War Emblem. Since then, Baffert has accumulated many wins in some of the biggest races in the game, but the roses have eluded him. Second place finishes in 2009 (Pioneer of the Nile) and 2012 (Bodemeister) are the closest California’s top conditioner has come to recapturing the glory. Now, after 24 starters in the past 19 years, things have changed a bit for Baffert, especially in the Derby fever department.
“I don’t get the Derby fever like I used to,” says Baffert. “Of course all of my clients dream about the Kentucky Derby and it is my job to get them there. This sport, like all sports, is about entertainment and going to the biggest race in the country is thrilling. My focus, however is not on getting there, it is on winning. If I am going with a horse that has a real chance to win, now that is exciting for me.”
There have been plenty of for real runners coming out of the Baffert barn of late. Unfortunately, their stars have not aligned on Derby day. Lookin at Lucky (2006) endured traffic problems, Pioneer of the Nile (2009) and Bodemeister (2012) were run down in the stretch, and Hoppertunity (2014) had to be scratched due to injury. All were considered prime-time players but could not deliver a fourth win for a man with over 2,000 career trips to the winner’s circle.
The 2015 road to the Kentucky Derby is once again featuring some frontrunners from the Baffert barn. American Pharoah, Dortmund, and Lord Nelson have all flashed an all too familiar trait for Baffert trained runners of late…speed. Thoroughbreds that get out and go seem to be the norm now for this veteran of the game.
“Give me the speed,” says Baffert. “I would much rather have a horse that plays catch me if you can instead of relying on a certain pace up front to set up a big closing kick. Of course it has happened in the Derby where the front-end collapses and some horse comes from way back to get up at the end and then they never win another race. If I were a football coach we would be Oregon, we want the speed.”
The Kentucky Derby may not have seen the speed cultivated by Baffert in the winner’s circle, but plenty of other huge races have in all divisions. A keen eye and a dedicated work ethic has produced a enviable record to say the least. Derby fever may not engulf him like it once did, but winning the Kentucky Derby is still way up on his list.
“The Kentucky Derby is the race everybody wants to win,” says Baffert. “I have been very fortunate to have a lot of good horses, but finding talent has been one of my strongest attributes. Some horses we have paid a lot of money for and some we have not. The Derby has given us something to shoot for with most of them. At the end of the day it gives us all that prize to shoot for. That is something every sports needs and we certainly have that with the Kentucky Derby.”