Bobbing For Roses: Baffert is 'Mr. Derby'

Published in the May 11 issue of The Blood-Horse
Bob Baffert keeps a photograph of the 1996 Kentucky Derby (gr. I) finish on the wall of his Churchill Downs barn office. It depicts Cavonnier, his first Derby starter, losing by a nose to Grindstone, who gave trainer D. Wayne Lukas his third Derby victory.

Lukas had five starters in the 1996 Run for the Roses to two for Baffert, the California-based trainer whose name at the time was hardly synonymous with Thoroughbred racing's most-recognized race. It seemed like forever as the judges studied the photo finish late in the afternoon of May 4, 1996.

"For about two minutes, I knew what it felt like to win the Kentucky Derby," Baffert said.

The photograph serves as a reminder of the highs and lows of Thoroughbred racing, and how, sometimes, they're only separated by inches or minutes. Either way, the images endure.

Just a week or so before Baffert's Derby debut, he received word from his friends, Florida pinhookers J.B. and Kevin McKathan, of a gray 2-year-old colt they believed was worth pursuing at the Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. 2-year-olds in training sale. Baffert, in the process of training Cavonnier for the Derby, missed the bidding, but the Silver Buck colt was bought back for $100,000.

Baffert quickly made an $85,000 offer on behalf of Californians Bob and Beverly Lewis and bought the colt. The following year, the colt, Silver Charm, gave Baffert his first Derby win in only his second attempt.

The media couldn't get enough of Baffert in 1997, and the following year, when he won the Derby a second time with $17,000 yearling purchase Real Quiet for the flamboyant Mike Pegram, it was all flashbulbs and tape recorders. Reporters, captivated by Baffert's wit, one-liners, and penchant for wearing revered trophies on his head, regularly camped out at his barn.

A former Quarter Horse trainer like Lukas, Baffert had become Mr. Derby in only three years.

Baffert is the first to admit just how difficult it is to win on the first Saturday of May, and the following three years served as proof. In 1999, he had three starters--Prime Timber, Excellent Meeting, and General Challenge--and could do no better than fourth. In 2000, Captain Steve checked in eighth. Last year, Congaree finished third, but his other starter, heavily favored Point Given, owned by Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp., was fifth in what may have been Baffert's ultimate disappointment.

In 2001, Baffert had the 2-year-old colt Officer, but injuries kept the outstanding son of Bertrando from becoming a Derby prospect. Baffert still had Danthebluegrassman, winner of the Golden Gate Derby (gr. III), but it appeared the Kentucky Derby wasn't an objective.

It seemed Baffert might end up watching the Derby as a spectator, but Salman wanted a rooting interest.

Enter the almost-black War Emblem, who was fresh off a blowout victory in the April 6 Illinois Derby (gr. II) at Sportsman's Park. Just a few days after the race, Baffert said he and The Thoroughbred Corp. racing manager Richard Mulhall were at Clocker's Corner at Santa Anita talking about the Illinois Derby, and how War Emblem had earned a 112 Beyer Speed Figure. Minutes later, the phone rang. It was an agent with a tip on a Derby prospect for sale.

In about an hour, Baffert was on a plane to Lexington, where trainer Frank "Bobby" Springer had shipped War Emblem to train for the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II). Baffert indicated War Emblem had some physical problems, but nothing he hadn't seen before.

In quick order, Salman paid about $1 million for the colt by Our Emblem, and Baffert shipped him to Churchill Downs, where he worked quite nicely three times before the Derby. Six years to the day of his first Derby foray, Baffert ended up in the winner's circle again, but this time with a horse he had in his barn for less than a month.

"It happened so fast," Baffert said after War Emblem cruised to a wire-to-wire victory in this year's Derby. "It was fate. I can remember we bought Silver Charm just before the 1996 Derby, and this year, we bought another gray colt at the same sale. This race has a lot of karma. My fiancée Jill (Moss) and I were talking about fate. She told me, 'You're going to win. You're going to beat Wayne this time.' "

Moss, who will marry Baffert Aug. 3 in Southern California, was right. She was at the barn with Baffert all of Derby week, and noticed the dearth of media attention. She later stood by as Baffert fielded questions about why he entered Danthebluegrassman at the last minute in a flap that actually came down to Kentucky rules of racing.

To fan the flames, Danthebluegrassman tied up the morning of the race and was scratched. Baffert took even more heat from the press and the public, because the entry of Danthebluegrassman had knocked Team Valor and William Heiligbrodt's Windward Passage out of the race.

"It was poetic justice," Moss said after War Emblem's victory.

Of Baffert's previous 11 Derby starters, none had been higher than 8-1 on the tote board. War Emblem was dismissed at 20-1, and second-place finisher Proud Citizen, trained by Lukas, was 23-1.

It wasn't your typical Baffert Derby appearance. He said he didn't walk from the barn to the paddock with War Emblem because he wanted to stay on the frontside, though he later quipped: "Nobody really wanted to walk over with me, either."

Later, as he made his way from the tunnel through the paddock to the interview room, Baffert met with uncharacteristic heckling. One man yelled obscenities. A well-dressed woman leaned over the fence and told him he had bought the Derby and stuck it to America.

"Anybody who says that is envious or jealous," Baffert said. "I'm thankful the connections gave me this horse. I told the prince I owed him a Derby, and he got it today. A lot of people may think this isn't a fair way to come to the Derby, but this is how I make a living."

Baffert said he actually appreciated being under the radar screen this year, at least until a few days before the Derby. He also said he learned from Lukas, who has had a roller-coaster ride with the media, how to deal with negativity.
"I really don't worry about what people think," Baffert said. "What I do care about are my horses. These things happen when you win and you talk a little bit. I'm going through the same thing Wayne went through. I've learned from him how to handle it."

Baffert credited his assistants, Jimmy and Dana Barnes, for quickly recognizing War Emblem's ability. He also credited Springer, with whom he said he would split his $100,000 share of the $1-million bonus The Thoroughbred Corp. will receive for winning the Illinois Derby and a Triple Crown event.

When the festivities quieted down a bit in the Kentucky Derby Museum, Baffert took a minute and called Springer on his cell phone.

"Thanks a lot, Bobby," Baffert told the Illinois-based trainer. "They had no respect for that black son of a bitch."

Among the crowd in the post-race interview room were the Lewises, who also won the 1999 Derby with the Lukas-trained Charismatic. Bob Lewis, never at a loss for platitudes, was ecstatic.

"They ran one-two this year!" he said of Baffert and Lukas, "and we won the Derby with both of them. It was just a marvelous, wonderful race."

Silver Charm was a media darling, though, and at the time, so was Baffert. As he made the walk from the interview room to the Derby Museum for the post-race party, Lewis was asked for his reflections on this year's Derby, specifically how Baffert didn't get much positive attention Derby week, and the public hardly seemed enthralled.

Lewis stopped, grinned, let out an almost devilish laugh, and said: "But he came out of it smelling like a rose--literally."