Trainer Profile: Baffert Back on Top in Triple Crown

Published as part of the Preakness Stakes coverage in the May 26 Blood-Horse
It's hard to enjoy a private and special moment with 100,000 screaming fans around you. But after Point Given rolled to a 2 1/4-length victory at Pimlico May 19, trainer Bob Baffert grabbed his cell phone and tuned out the roar of the Preakness (gr. I) crowd. While watching the big red colt jog toward the winner's circle, Baffert called his 78-year-old mother in Nogales, Ariz.

Just two days earlier, Ellie Baffert had been in the hospital. But now she was back home and feeling much better. With a heady mixture of relief and elation coursing through him, the white-haired trainer from California wanted to share his third, and perhaps most satisfying, Preakness triumph with Mom.

"It was very emotional," Baffert said. "I almost started crying. I told her, 'I wish you were here with us. We miss you.' I know she wanted to be here with us, too. She's had some things go wrong, and she's got a fight in front of her, but she'll be fine."

Two weeks prior to the Preakness, Baffert's mom was visiting her son at Churchill Downs, where he hoped to give her a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) victory as an early Mother's Day gift. The trainer had the favorite, Point Given, who had dazzled just about everyone with his imposing stature and sharp training moves, as well as another top contender, Congaree.

The trainer was confident; his mother was excited.

But instead of dominating the Derby, Point Given struggled. The 17-hand son of Thunder Gulch wound up a well-beaten fifth without any obvious excuse. Congaree, meanwhile, performed heroically, running close to a torrid early pace, then hanging on for third, just a nose behind Invisible Ink.

"Bob was really crushed," Florida horseman Kevin McKathan said. "He really thought this horse (Point Given) would be his Triple Crown winner, so it was tough on him. We talked and came up with all sorts of theories. By the end of the night, we were joking and saying it was everybody's fault but ours."

There were lots of ideas, but no firm conclusions: The track was too hard...the weather was too hot...the pace was too fast. Between the Derby and the Preakness all were discussed--both within Baffert's inner circle and in public during various interviews. The trainer even had the monstrous chestnut examined thoroughly at a Lexington veterinary clinic.

"We never had any real doubts about Point Given's ability, but we were all puzzled," Baffert said. "Churchill is a weird strip. Sometimes horses don't get over it like they are comfortable, and Point Given wasn't comfortable that day. So we looked him over, and when we couldn't find anything wrong, we decided we would go on to the next one."

In the Preakness, jockey Gary Stevens changed his riding strategy, allowing Point Given to relax early. Afterward, Stevens and Baffert agreed that the more patient approach might have been the key to victory. They also thanked owner Prince Ahmed Salman of The Thoroughbred Corp. for suggesting that they might want to stop rushing the colt.

"Prince Ahmed told us, 'Hey, please, please take him back. Listen to me.' So we did," Baffert said.

The win provided redemption for the beaten Derby favorite. And it also was an important turning point for his 48-year-old trainer.

Baffert is recognized as one of the leading handlers of racehorses in the world. He has a trio of Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer, and is the holder of three consecutive North American earnings titles.

But before Point Given's Preakness rebound, Baffert had not saddled the winner of a Triple Crown race since 1998, and he was getting a little frustrated.

"If you want to compare it to other sports, Bobby is the guy who wants the ball when it's fourth and one," said Baffert's friend and longtime client Mike Pegram. "If there's five seconds left in the game, he wants the last shot. That's what the Triple Crown is all about, and he likes winning."

At first, Baffert made it look so easy. When he burst onto the Triple Crown scene in 1996 with Cavonnier, the former Quarter Horse trainer charmed the press and much of the Thoroughbred industry with his laid-back attitude and self-deprecating humor. He also just missed winning the Kentucky Derby. Then Baffert enjoyed an amazing two-year run, capturing both the Derby and Preakness with Bob and Beverly Lewis' Silver Charm in 1997 and Pegram's Real Quiet in 1998. A Belmont Stakes (gr. I) win eluded Baffert and his horses both times, but the trainer was gracious in defeat, gaining more admirers. He was one of the sport's fastest rising stars, and he glowed in the limelight.

But as the glare of publicity intensified, Baffert's image lost some of its luster, which is one of fame's inevitable curses. His marriage soured, and his personal life was scrutinized and criticized by the same reporters who once chuckled at his jokes. Even though he snared his third straight earnings crown in 2000, newspaper articles suggested he was losing his magic touch. In addition, there were persistent rumors that Baffert used illegal drugs to aid his horses--something the trainer denied and blamed on jealousy about his success.

Former assistant Eoin Harty, who left Baffert to take a job training for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin, agrees. "It's ridiculous," Harty told the Baltimore Sun. "The better he did, the more rumors there were. As God is my witness, on the life of my children, we never used anything illegal. At the end of the day, he's probably just a better trainer than the other ones."

But last May, one of Baffert's horses, Nautical Look, tested positive for morphine after winning an allowance race at Hollywood Park. Inadvertent contamination was the trainer's defense. His lawyer argued the case should be dismissed because a blood sample was thrown out in a cost-saving move and never tested. This year, right before the Preakness, an attorney with the California Horse Racing Board recommended a $10,000 fine and a stiff six-month suspension as Baffert's punishments. However, the stewards have not issued a ruling.

"I think this Preakness means more to him in a lot of ways than the other ones did," said the oldest of Baffert's three brothers, Bill. "He now knows what a gift it is, how hard it is to win a classic race."

The victorious Preakness trainer of 2001 echoed that sentiment.

"I'm probably more excited about this one because it's been a few years since I've won a Triple Crown race. It seems like it's been forever," said Baffert, whose pleasure was enhanced by another third-place classic effort from Congaree. "The other times we won the Preakness, we were still flying high when we got to Baltimore. It almost didn't matter if we won or lost. This time, we had been beaten down because it was such a disappointment when Point Given didn't run well in the Kentucky Derby."

But it was big brother Bill who put the latest Preakness experience into perspective.

"Our mom feeling better is better than anything else," he concluded. "For all of us, it's been a great day."