The Natural
Photo:
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief
Mike Pegram calls Bob Baffert "an artiste." Bob Lewis says he is "unbelievable." And Prince Ahmed Salman, whose colors have been carried to victory in four consecutive Triple Crown races by the Baffert-trained duo of Point Given and War Emblem, proclaims the conditioner a "genius."

While that high praise may or may not be deserved, there is one thing you can say about Baffert with no uncertainty: He is an outstanding and experienced horseman. By the time the Arizona native burst onto the Triple Crown scene at the age of 43 in 1996 when the California-bred gelding Cavonnier lost the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) by a nose, Baffert had been grooming, breaking, training, or riding horses for more than 30 years.

His father, Bill Baffert, owned a ranch in Nogales, Ariz., and raced a small string of Quarter Horses at the bush tracks of Arizona and New Mexico and in match races at places that didn't have names. "We went everywhere together and he's the one who started me," Bob Baffert says of his father. "I was his groom, jockey, and I took care of them. I did everything. That's the way I grew up. I've been around horses all my life."

Bill Baffert dreamed of the big time in horse racing, but the reality of a working ranch and seven hungry kids raised by him and wife Ellie kept him close to home.
"I'm living my dad's dream," Bob Baffert said.

He's living it large.

Baffert now has eight Triple Crown race wins over a six-year period, putting him behind just six other trainers: Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and D. Wayne Lukas, with 13 each; R.W. Walden, 12; James Rowe Sr., 11; and Max Hirsch and Ben Jones, nine each. He's won the same number as Woody Stephens. And he doesn't appear close to being finished.

Baffert's done it with homebreds (Point Given), a yearling purchase (Pegram's Real Quiet), a 2-year-old purchase (Bob and Beverly Lewis' Silver Charm), and now with War Emblem, a horse he bought privately for Salman just weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

In Baffert's 1999 autobiography, "Baffert: Dirt Road to the Derby" (written with Steve Haskin and published by The Blood-Horse, Inc.), Bill Baffert said of his son: "He was a natural horseman, and even when he was a kid he could pick out a good horse. At 12 and 13, he already had the ability to tell me right away if a horse was good or not. He had great balance and broke all the horses at the ranch. You'd look at this skinny kid and would never think he'd ever be able to handle these kind of horses, but he broke everything...Those same attributes he had as a kid, he uses now."

Today, though, Baffert doesn't have to get on the horses to evaluate their ability, yet he sees things that many others do not. When War Emblem breezed under Dana Barnes at Churchill Downs four days before the Preakness (gr. I), many people frowned at the final time of 1:031?5 for five furlongs. In fact, the slow time led some to speculate there was something wrong with the horse, especially since the trainer is known for putting fast works into his runners.

Baffert was downright giddy afterwards. "Did you see that?" he asked one observer, who responded with a blank look. "See what?"

"He broke off really quick, going his first furlong in 12 seconds, so I asked Dana to slow him down," Baffert explained. "He just shut it down, easy. After a little while I told her to pick it up again, and he did with no problem. He's really turning into a push-button kind of horse."

The transformation didn't happen overnight. Since the speed-crazy colt was transferred to Baffert's care, exercise rider Mick Jenner, a former steeplechase jockey in England, has worked with War Emblem, settling him down in his daily gallops. The work is paying off.

The ultimate payday could be June 8 at Belmont Park.

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