ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) — Bob Baffert came blasting into thoroughbred racing in Southern California talking smack. Wearing a cowboy hat and boots, he had already conquered the quarter horse world and was ready to take aim at the bigger money and prestige offered by training regally-bred thoroughbreds.
It wasn’t long before he piled up 11 wins in Triple Crown races — two behind leader D. Wayne Lukas — and ditched his big hat but kept the boots.
Baffert’s quick success rubbed rival trainers the wrong way in a business rife with jealousy. But after a heart attack and the death of close family members, the 62-year-old Baffert has finally grown into the premature cap of white hair that has been his trademark for years.
“When you start out, you’re hungry and you’re ambitious. Ambitious can give you an edge that people don’t like,” said Baffert, who will try for the first Triple Crown since 1978 when American Pharoah runs in the Belmont Stakes next Saturday. “Now I’m still hungry, but not ambitious to the way where I’m easier to deal with.”
In the beginning, Baffert thrived in the spotlight. He was quick with a quip and flip with his attitude. Winning back-to-back Kentucky Derbies with horses that had shots at winning the Triple Crown in 1997 and 1998 will turn someone’s head. He won a third Derby in 2002 before War Emblem stumbled out of the starting gate at the Belmont and lost his Triple try.
“I thought I was so smart,” he said.
Then life kicked Baffert in the behind. His mother died in 2011, and he survived a heart attack in Dubai and the death of his father within a six-month span the following year. Then, seven horses in his barn at now-closed Hollywood Park died for inconclusive reasons.
The heart attack prompted diet and lifestyle changes (cheeseburgers were out and chicken was in), but losing his parents was life-changing. During TV interviews, he would play to them watching back home in Nogales, Arizona, pulling son Bode into the shot so Ellie could see her young grandson.
“Now there’s nobody out there,” he said, sitting trackside on a recent quiet morning at Santa Anita.
Bill Sr. loved horses and racing, but with seven kids he was duty-bound to his ranch. Nicknamed “The Chief,” he got Bob interested in the sport, and his son took it from there, starting out as a jockey in the braggadocious world of quarter horses, where pickups and those big cowboy hats were the signature style.
“Everything starts out, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’m going to kick your (rear).’ We’re going to the OK Corral with guns blazing,'” said Baffert, mimicking a drawl. “The thoroughbred world isn’t that way. It’s more of a gentleman’s skill; we’re going to take 10 paces and turn around and shoot each other.”
Baffert has trained for Ahmed Zayat, who owns American Pharoah, since 2007. They’ve built trust and a bond that makes it easy for their families to spend time together away from the track. Zayat noticed a change in Baffert’s hard-charging ways after his heart attack and surgery to insert three stents.
“He’s more content. He doesn’t have to get everything done perfect,” the Egyptian-born businessman said. “His demeanor is telling me that ‘I’m happy to have a second chance and now I’m going to try to enjoy it and try not to stress myself.'”
The sudden deaths of his horses a few years ago and the slamming he took online chased Baffert off Twitter. He and wife Jill keep 10-year-old Bode off social media and don’t let him have a cellphone.
“Before, people’s opinions were kept in a bar. Now they disrespect the president of the United States,” he said. “Social media has changed the world. It’s the teardown society.”
Baffert has had gut-wrenching failures, losing all three of his previous Triple tries at the Belmont Stakes, most memorably in 1998, when Real Quiet was beaten by a nose. He’ll take another shot with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah in next weekend’s Belmont, with a chance to become horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first in 37 years.
“He’s the only horse I’ve ever had when I went to these races I didn’t have to build him up,” he said. “People come up to me telling me how good he is.”
Baffert hopes to stick around in racing another 10 years, but only if he can continue competing with the best horses at the highest level. He’s prepared for any outcome in the Belmont, slightly incredulous that he has another shot in the pinnacle of the sport.
“Am I lucky or what?” he said. “Here I am in this position, I’m telling you it was not supposed to happen.”
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