A decidedly thinner and more laid back—even by California standards—Bob Baffert held court outside Barn 33 Derby week, greeting well-wishers and taking visitors through his harrowing, life-threatening trip to Dubai less than two months earlier.
Baffert suffered a heart attack in his hotel shortly after arriving for the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) program. His wife, Jill, recognized the symptoms Baffert was experiencing and got the Hall of Fame trainer to the hospital pronto.
Baffert, 58, hasn’t lost his sense of humor. “I was watching the Sunland Derby at the time, which didn’t help any,” he said.
Baffert has changed several things in his life since the illness, including his diet and his outlook coming up to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).
“Before at the Derby, every time it would rain I’d be fretting about how the track would be and when to work my horses, and I wouldn’t be able to sleep,” he said. “Now I’m like ‘let’s just wait for the right time and whatever happens, happens.’ With 20 horses in the race, I have no control over anything but getting my horses ready, so it’s not worth fretting over and beating yourself up. I don’t worry about it. I feel lucky to be here talking with you guys.
“I believe in fate. It wasn’t my time to go, but the Lord put the shank over my nose and took me out behind the shed to teach me a lesson, and deservedly so.”
Baffert received a special visitor while he was in the hospital in Dubai, as the country’s ruler and horse enthusiast/owner Sheikh Mohammed came to visit him. Baffert took video of the visit because he didn’t think people would believe it.
“After he left, the nurses all wanted to know who I was, and I told them ‘I’m just a horse trainer.’ That was so classy of him to come and make sure I got good treatment. I was pretty confident when I saw the doctor. He was dressed impeccably and I began calling him Dr. Armani.”
Baffert will have a pair of contenders going postward for the Derby. Arnold Zetcher’s Liaison and Ahmed Zayat’s Bodemeister will represent the white-haired trainer, who has won the race with Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem. While considering it’s been a decade since he’s won the Derby, Baffert noted, “I know how tough the Derby is to win.”
Bodemeister is named after Baffert’s son Bode, although Baffert wasn’t originally in favor of Zayat picking that name.
“It never works out when people name horses after somebody’s kid; it’s a jinx. When the horse was named I said, ‘Forget about that horse. It’s over'. ”
Bode is assisting in his father’s recovery. “He watches me and won’t let me cheat by eating stuff I shouldn’t be eating,” said the trainer.
Perhaps fate is stronger than that jinx. But win or lose, Baffert is maintaining perspective, and he will be a happy man either way come nightfall Saturday.