CRAWFORD | Again at the doorstep of history, Baffert taking this - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Again at the doorstep of history, Baffert taking this Triple Crown chase in stride

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Bob Baffert says he has "mellowed" heading into his fourth bid to win the Triple Crown. (AP photo) Bob Baffert says he has "mellowed" heading into his fourth bid to win the Triple Crown. (AP photo)
How close to a Triple Crown was Bob Baffert with Real Quiet? The official photo from Belmont shows. (AP photo). How close to a Triple Crown was Bob Baffert with Real Quiet? The official photo from Belmont shows. (AP photo).
Bob Baffert and his wife, Jill, at Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby. "I couldn't do this without Jill," Baffert said. (AP photo) Bob Baffert and his wife, Jill, at Churchill Downs before the Kentucky Derby. "I couldn't do this without Jill," Baffert said. (AP photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Bob Baffert doesn't need the Triple Crown. He says it would be nice. As a fan of the sport, he wants to see it. But as the trainer trying to pull it off, the feat entails more fretting than fun. It is equal parts heartbreak and hope.

Baffert knows what it feels like to win. He was so close. The bob of a head. The width of a victory cigar. Had Victory Gallop and Baffert's Real Quiet hit the wire a stride earlier in 1998, Baffert would've been celebrating with his young daughter, her arms wrapped around his neck in the Belmont grandstand. Had they hit the wire a stride later, he could've been in the Winner's Circle with owner Mike Pegram, instead of watching Victory Gallop's connections celebrate.

“I thought Real Quiet won,” Baffert said last week outside his barn at Churchill Downs. “I thought he held on and won. It was sort of a moment that was a different kind of moment. It wasn't like the Kentucky Derby. You're exhausted. By (the end of the Belmont), everybody's tired and we just want it to end, you know? You can't wait till you get them into the gate.” 

The words Baffert said to the media then are very much what he says today: Losing the Kentucky Derby is heartbreak. That's the race he lives to win. The Triple Crown? That's for the fans. It's for the sport. It's for the history books.

History hasn't been kind. Baffert himself has come up empty in three chances, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet a year later and War Emblem in 2002. And he figured that was it. He had trained just one winner of a Triple Crown race in the past decade heading into this year (though he was second in the Kentucky Derby in 2009 and '12). He was just hoping to win one more Kentucky Derby, maybe.

American Pharoah gave him that — and more. He won the Derby without having his “A” game. He dominated the Preakness in the slop. This week, he will go to Belmont giving Baffert an unprecedented fourth crack at the Triple Crown.

“I never thought there would be another chance like this,” Baffert said. “That's why I'm really enjoying this. To be going through it again with a horse like this, it's a wild moment. I try not to think about it too much. . . . I feel fortunate and pretty blessed at this point that I got the Pharoah.”

Everybody wanted American Pharoah. Ahmed Zayat, the colt's owner, invited the best trainers in the nation to Florida to look at his best yearlings, and they all wanted the Pharoah. D. Wayne Lukas only watched on video, and Pharoah was one who stood out, not just from the group, but from most he'd ever seen. And Lukas had seen plenty.

The Zayat family went with Baffert.

“We've been with Bob for 10 years,” Justin Zayat, racing manager for Zayat Stables said. “Also Bob trained Pioneerof the Nile (the sire of American Pharoah) for us. Plus he was showing so much talent and we knew the (2014) Breeders' Cup was in California so Bob could keep him out there.”

After winning the Preakness, Baffert got emotional when talking about the Zayat family.

In 2012, Baffert was in Dubai preparing Game On Dude for the Dubai World Cup when he suffered a heart attack. Two stents were inserted into one artery, and one into another. He was 59 years old. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and a horse racing enthusiast, visited him in the hospital.

Even from the hospital bed, Baffert had one priority: Make sure his owners knew he was all right, that he could still do the job. And he wanted one owner notified before anyone else.

“When I was having my heart attack in Dubai, I told Jill first one, text Ahmed,” Baffert said. “Tell him I'm having a little heart attack. But (Zayat's horse) Bodemeister is okay. Don't worry. We're on it. Don't worry. I never quit training from that bed. In this game, if you want to compete at this level -- I still owe my wife a honeymoon. It's seven days a week. You have to stay on top of it. . . . I'm just so appreciative that they've kept trusting me with these great horses.”

Of course, there's no such thing as a “little” heart attack. It's bound to change someone's perspective. Jill Baffert, his wife, said it's certainly had that effect on her husband.  He leaves more in the hands of his assistants. He doesn't feel the need to be with horses every minute. But Baffert himself credits her for helping him have perspective. The two were married in 2002.

“I couldn't do this without Jill,” he said. “. . . She can read me.”

He can tell he's mellowed. After the Preakness, he teared up. When he took Jill and his 11-year-old son Bode to visit Silver Charm and Game on Dude at Old Friends Farm in Georgetown last month, he teared up — and not just because of his allergy to, of all things, horses — the origin of his now-trademark sunglasses.

“I think I've changed,” Baffert said before the Derby. “I probably appreciate it more. When I first came in here I was younger and I thought this was fun, this was easy or whatever. . . . I feel like I've mellowed. I've become a big baby. I told Jill, 'What's happening to me?' I think when they put those stents in me they put something else in there."

A lot changed between Derby wins for Baffert. From 2002 to 2015, nothing stayed the same. About the only constant in thoroughbred racing has been the public desire to see a horse win the Triple Crown — and the inability of anyone to do so. It's now been 37 years since Affirmed pulled it off. The Belmont Stakes is seeing the largest crowds in its history with Triple Crowns in play, so much so that the track capped attendance at 90,000 for this year's race.

Asked what a Triple Crown might do for the sport, Baffert said he isn't sure.

“I don't what it will do for the sport. But it's not going to change my life,” Baffert said. “I think if it ever happens, it'll probably just keep happening a lot. But 37 years, you think about that, so I don't really get too excited about it, because I know I'm going in there bucking the tides.

“I hear that question and I've been asked that question all the years I've been through it and I don't think anybody knows. The last time it happened it was 37 years ago and we lived in this totally different world and now, with social media and the way things get around now . . . I don't know. I think we get so much more coverage, like if Secretariat lived like today, it would be like, oh it would be just incredible. So I think that nobody knows the answer to that. But first he has to do it, which is like, it's not going to be easy, and I know what we're up against there and odds are against us.”

Baffert said he's aware that the following for American Pharoah is growing. He said he is very conscious of the need to do right by the horse, to show the public that he's been treated well and handled in the right way, not being unduly pressed to perform if he's not physically up to it. He also said he feels a responsibility to be a voice for the sport, and that means time with the media. He spoke with reporters for more than 30 minutes on a conference call last week, and always has patiently fielded questions when he has come to Churchill Downs. New York, however, is another challenge entirely.

“I can't go into Marshawn Lynch mode,” he quipped. “It would be nice. I feel like we have a duty. The horses can't talk. We're their voice piece. . . . But I know when we get up there (to New York) we're going to be flooded with all kinds of media requests. To me, that's the hardest part. Media is tough. This is easy, today, with you guys (talking at the barn with reporters), but when we get up there everybody is going to, you know, want to push the race and all that, and we'll try to do as much as possible but not overdo it.”

Baffert says there's a different feel this year, with this horse. And he feels he's a different trainer than the younger, more driven man who has three times come to Belmont in this position. He has a jockey who will be in this position for the third time himself, Victor Espinoza.

But he said none of that really matters. What matters is the horse. Either American Pharoah is a transcendent kind of 3-year-old, or he isn't. As long as American Pharaoh is healthy and happy, and Baffert can lead him to the gate safe and sound, he's at peace with the results.

“As long as he runs his race I'll feel happy,” Baffert said. “If he shows up and runs his race, if he gets outrun, he gets outrun. As long as I feel like he has them prepared, I'll feel good about it. . . . My job is to get him to the gate healthy and ready. Then it's up to him.”

At that moment, in fact, when American Pharoah steps into the starting gate, Baffert said he stops being a trainer. When the bell rings and the gates fly open at the Belmont, despite all the time he has put in with American Pharoah, he said he becomes a fan just like the other 90,000 people in the stands.

“I'm like everybody else watching,” Baffert said. “I'm part trainer, but part fan. I'm just hoping to see what he can do next. I'm getting excited just thinking about it. I hope maybe he is the horse. When they go in the gate, I'll be watching. I'm not watching it as a trainer, I'm watching as a fan.”

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