Bob Baffert Honored

An Evening Honoring

BOB BAFFERT August 15, 2016

Photo courtesy of Barbara Livingston


Bob Baffert was once at Lone Star Park in Texas to run some 3-year-old Thoroughbred in a race of decent value. He does that a lot, and with pretty good results, having won by now no less than 12 American classics, along with eight Haskell Invitationals, seven Santa Anita Derbies, and nearly every regional prize worth the shipping fee.
So there he was at Lone Star, fitting right in with his pressed jeans, ostrich boots, starched white shirt, and movie star shades, stepping into a grandstand elevator half-packed with strangers and fans. A wave of instant recognition tickled through the group, but everyone kept their cool, and then a woman piped up from the back.
“My husband would kill me if I didn’t get your autograph, Mr. Baffert,” she said.
Never one to pass up a straight line, Bob turned and gave her his best Baffert grin.
“Now that’s one killing I’d pay to see,” he said with a laugh, and grabbed her pen and program as the woman melted with joy.
In the case of Bob Baffert, separating the man from the horse trainer and the horse trainer from the celebrity is a hopeless task. He has been Bob Baffert the Family Man (two attractive families, in fact). He has been Bob Baffert the Super Trainer, with four Eclipse Awards and a plaque in the Hall of Fame. He has been Bob Baffert the Media Magnet, a quick wit who can wrap a crowd around his little finger with a self-deprecating dig and a hip cultural reference.
There are other roles Baffert is playing, especially when it comes to giving something back to the game. In the wake of American Pharoah’s victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes, when Baffert became the first trainer in 37 years to win the Triple Crown, he and his wife, Jill, made $50,000 donations to each of four noteworthy Thoroughbred industry charities: the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, the California Retirement Management Account, and Old Friends Equine, where former Baffert stars Silver Charm, Game On Dude, and War Emblem are living in happy retirement now that their racing and breeding days are over.
“Win, lose or draw, I was going to do it,” Baffert said on a visit to Old Friends, not long after the historic Belmont victory. “I want to share this. I want to make sure that those horses that we really love, we have to take care of them.”.
Now Baffert is lending his name and celebrity buzz to the Edwin J. Gregson Foundation as its honoree at the organization’s annual fund-raising awards dinner, being held this summer at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar Resort on Monday, August 15.
The Gregson Foundation is named for the late Eddie Gregson, who left his mark not only as the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Gato del Sol, but also as a tireless advocate for the welfare of backstretch workers and their families. The Foundation was established to provide scholarship assistance to the children of the stable personnel who care for the horses that make the business possible. Including the 2016 recipients, the Gregson Foundation has awarded more than $900,000 in scholarship grants.

Baffert is following in the large footsteps of previous trainers honored by the Gregson Foundation, including Mel and Warren Stute, Noble Threewitt, Jack Van Berg, Ron McAnally, and Richard Mandella.
It is safe to say, however, that none of those horsemen ever posed for a winner’s circle picture wearing a Jack-olantern head on Halloween, or donned the robes of a desert sheikh for a magazine cover photo to celebrate his Dubai World Cup winners, or stepped in front of the camera for a spoof based on characters in a mainstream movie about a randy British spy.
The successful Quarter Horse trainer known as Bobby Baffert first burst upon the Southern California Thoroughbred scene in 1991 with three victories in California Cup races at Santa Anita Park. That was followed by a beneath-the-radar swing at the 1992 Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream Park, when he tiptoed into town with one starter and ended up winning the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with Thirty Slews.
Over the next decade, it sometimes seemed as if Baffert had been beamed down from some mother ship with a prime directive of entertaining a stuffy, hidebound racing industry. His pinpoint sense of humor was on widespread display at the 1996 Kentucky Derby, when he brought the Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier to Louisville to take on the beasts of the East. Baffert took one look at favored Unbridled’s Song, the reigning division champion, and grabbed a line from everyone’s favorite shark movie:
Over the next decade, it sometimes seemed as if Baffert had been beamed down from some mother ship with a prime directive of entertaining a stuffy, hidebound racing industry. His pinpoint sense of humor was on widespread display at the 1996 Kentucky Derby, when he brought the Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier to Louisville to take on the beasts of the East. Baffert took one look at favored Unbridled’s Song, the reigning division champion, and grabbed a line from everyone’s favorite shark movie:
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” he said.
Not much bigger, as it turned out. While Unbridled’s Song struggled on damaged feet, Baffert came within a nose of winning the Derby in his first try. The nose belonged to Grindstone, who was trained by fellow Quarter Horse emigree, Wayne Lukas.
Baffert was back to the Derby the following year with Silver Charm for owners Bob and Beverly Lewis, who were also Lukas clients. This time around, the boat was just the right size. Silver Charm beat Captain Bogit by a head to put Baffert on top of the racing world.
“When they hit the wire, my whole body was numb,” Baffert said afterwards. “I’ll probably never experience that again, unless I win the Kentucky Derby again.”
Be careful what you wish for. One year later, Baffert returned to Churchill Downs with a horse he had nicknamed “The Fish,” because, when viewed from the front, he was so narrow he tended to disappear. His name was Real Quiet.
By then, Baffert himself was training in a fishbowl. He had come within a nose of winning two straight Derbies in his first two tries. When Real Quiet ran the race of his life to win the 1998 Kentucky Derby by a half a length over Victory Gallop, it became official: Baffert had become the face of American racing, and he performed for the sports media like no trainer since the heyday of the loquacious Woody Stephens.
By the time Real Quiet arrived at the 1999 Hollywood Gold Cup as one of the top older horses in the country, Baffert was tapped by Fox-TV to goof on the Mike Myers characters Austin Powers and Dr. Evil for the Gold Cup telecast. Costume! Make-up! Action!
“The movies were out at the time,” Baffert said. “I was kidding around with the Dr. Evil character – ‘One million dollars.’ – and they talked me into it, to promote the race. It was fun, but my acting career was short. And after I did it I thought, ‘Now I better win the race.'”
He did, with a gritty performance from his colt that turned out to be the last race of Real Quiet’s career.
Beginning with Silver Charm in 1997 and then Real Quiet in 1998, Baffert has trained a total of 12 individual Eclipse Award winners for such clients as Mike Pegram, Hal Earnhardt, and Stonerside Stable, including Ahmed Salman’s 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given and Zayat Stable’s 2015 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year American Pharoah.
It was Baffert’s journey with American Pharoah that captivated the American public and put horse racing, at least temporarily, on page one of the sports section. Together, the trainer and his staff, led by assistant Jim Barnes, crafted a nearly flawless assault on the game’s most treasured events, topped by victories in the Kentucky Deby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown.
For Baffert, the accomplishment was especially satisfying because his son, Bode, was of an age able to truly appreciate the journey. On an even more personal level, Baffert was simply glad to be alive to make the journey.
While in Dubai in March of 2012 to run Game On Dude in the World Cup, Baffert suffered a heart attack that required immediate surgery to insert three stents to relieve two seriously blocked arteries. He came home shaken and determined to take better care of himself, and maybe loosen up on the screws that had tightened his determination to win so many big races for so long.
“I started realizing, ‘You know what, you’re not invincible, and you better enjoy what you have,'” Baffert said.
He did not know it at the time, but the colt who would test his change in attitude and lifestyle was gamboling around a Kentucky pasture at the side of his mother, not yet two months old. Two years later, when American Pharoah was sent to Baffert’s California string, it was apparent he was something special. How special remained to be seen.
At every turn, Baffert was amazed at what he saw. American Pharoah had the stride, the speed, the efficiency of movement, and the ability to recover from races and exercise that defied anything the trainer had experienced. Once recovered from a minor ankle injury at age two, American Pharoah never missed a beat.
“I’d like to take credit,” Baffert would say, “but Bode could probably train this horse.”
By the time American Pharoah ran his final race to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in October of 2015, the colt had become as popular as Lassie. Scores of fans and real world celebrities made the pilgrimage to the various Baffert barns to pay homage to American Pharoah, who accepted their visitations like the world’s most expensive plush toy. There is no telling how many people were touching their first Thoroughbred when they touched American Pharoah’s velvety nose.
Through it all, Baffert deferred credit for the colt’s accomplishments. He had come within one race of winning the Triple Crown three times before – with Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem – but by the time American Pharoah closed the deal, Baffert had already surrendered the moment to the game at large.

“I’m constantly thanking him for coming through,” he said at the time. “But he’s really moved me in a spiritual way. There’s something about this horse I’ve never felt with another horse. He’s just like, when you see him, you just love to see him because not only is he a sweet horse, he’s a very noble horse.”
The Gregson Foundation is delighted to have American Pharoah’s trainer in the spotlight, and Baffert feels likewise.
“I’m honored to be recognized by the Gregson Foundation and to stand alongside past honorees who are truly a Who’s Who of California racing,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable to see how the scholarship program has grown through the years and to know what a difference it has made in the lives of not only the kids, but entire families.
“Backstretch workers are the backbone of our industry,” Baffert added. “They work hard behind the scenes caring for the horses. This is a wonderful way to let them know they are appreciated and supported.”

Video by Molly McGill, Co-Founder, Grand Slam Social

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