A Preakness Stakes win by Kentucky Derby winner Justify would be the seventh for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in a span of just 22 years – which would equal Robert Wyndham Walden's all-time record of seven set in the 19th century.
All of Baffert's previous Preakness winners competed two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby, with four of them winning. Combined with his two Belmont Stakes victories, the 65-year-old native of Nogales, Ariz., has won 13 Triple Crown races.
Baffert followed another Hall of Famer, D. Wayne Lukas, transforming from a high-profile Quarter Horse trainer to a multiple Eclipse Award-winning Thoroughbred conditioner. Baffert opened a public stable for Thoroughbreds in 1989 and trained both breeds until 1991, when he dispersed his Quarter Horse stable.
Earlier this week, Baffert took time out of his schedule to reflect on his career.
Only D. Wayne Lukas has won more Triple Crown races than you (14 to 13). Do you think about numbers like this and what it says about your career?
I didn't know that till I read it the other day in some article. I don't think about the numbers, have never been a numbers person. I've started appreciating it, but I just wish my parents were around to see this. It meant more to them, because as a parent you want your kids to do something.
Why do you think the two trainers who have won the most races at classic distances both got started with Quarter Horse racing?
As Quarter Horse trainers we broke our own horses and there's a lot of horsemanship, dealing with young horses and getting them to run. For Quarter Horse trainers, it's the 2-year-old year that really counts, and that's it. You have to run them in the futurity trials and you turn around and run them right back in futurities, sometimes a week later. When you're dealing with young horses all your life, you know how to get them ready. It's all about early speed. It's that foundation we have from the Quarter Horse world. A lot of the good pinhookers (horsemen who buy yearlings and re-sell them as 2-year-olds in training) started with Quarter Horses.
What drove you in the beginning when you switched to Thoroughbreds?
I was getting complacent with the Quarter Horses. There's a ceiling for trainers there. With Thoroughbred racing there's no ceiling. I was getting bored and didn't like the way it was heading. Wayne (Lukas) opened the floodgates for us to step into it. I was used to winning the big races with Quarter Horses. I go to claim a Thoroughbred and the first three times it runs, it finishes last. People started saying about me, “He won't last.” Some of them told me, “You need to stay where you're at … there's no more Wayne Lukases.” Wayne set the bar pretty high.
Do you set any kind of goals for yourself?
I've never been a goal setter because I don't like to be disappointed. The only goals I ever set were when I moved to Los Alamitos with the Quarter Horses I gave myself three years to be competitive at the top level. I set the same goal – three years – when I switched to Thoroughbreds. I said I would not stay if I didn't make it in three years. Thirty Slews (Breeders' Cup Sprint winner) was the first Thoroughbred I bought at the sales. I'll never forget signing that first ticket for $30,000. I didn't have a buyer for him. I shipped him back to Los Alamitos and syndicated him.
After this year's Derby, trainer Graham Motion posted on Twitter: “Don't be hard on Mendelssohn. The Derby is a brutal race. Baffert is the GOAT.” (greatest of all time). That's quite a compliment coming from one of your peers.
Really? I hadn't heard that. Coming from him, that's pretty strong.
How has success changed you?\
A lot of people think I changed after my heart attack (in 2012), but I think I changed when I lost my parents. I used to play to the camera because my parents were watching. It rubbed some people the wrong way. I still like to have fun, but prefer being low key. I can't fly under the radar any more. Like on Derby Day I hid out in the trainer's room behind the paddock. I don't like being rude to people, but when you're working and there's stress, sometimes I don't have the patience. I've been short with some people, I guess the day I don't have that problem (being recognized or the center of attention), I'll wonder “Where is everybody.” This business can change fast. You're only as good as your last big horse. I'm just enjoying it now. I purposely keep my numbers low – about 100 horses. If we have horses that don't fit in California, we send them back East.
Has your training of Kentucky Derby or Oaks horses changed over the years?
It depends on how the horse is and how I feel. I took a chance this year coming off the van from California. The track at Churchill is not the same in the morning as the one you run on in the afternoon. What I do between the Derby and Preakness I changed up a while back. They're pretty fit coming out of the Derby. You just want to keep them happy. It's trial and error. I think about how I trained a horse from my Quarter Horse days, like when I won the Champion of Champions with Gold Coast Express and Shawnes Favorite.
I know you watch how other horses train and observe the kinds of routines they have. When you first got started with Thoroughbreds, were there certain trainers you paid attention to?
When I first started out I talked to Laz Barrera and Charlie Whittinham. I watched and learned a lot from Ron McAnally. He's one of the greatest of all time. He wasn't afraid to train them and his horses always looked great. I learned what he was feeding his horses. I wanted to learn everything I could.
How does the Preakness differ from the Derby?
It's my favorite leg. Everybody's chilled out after the Derby, where there's a lot of tension; you've been working at it for months trying to get into it. The people at Pimlico make it easy on you, there's no stress. The field's not so big, so you've got a decent chance. I remember the year Lookin At Lucky won the Preakness. – Karl Watson (one of the owners) was in tears. He was thinking about his family, his dad. The classics can really bring out the emotions.”
When did Justify first show up at Los Alamitos, and at what point did you realize he had the potential to be this kind of horse?
He came in in November after the Breeders' Cup. He was up to a half-mile breezing. When I went to see him, my assistant, Mike Marlow, was raving about him. Elliott Walden (CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Justify) said, “I'm sending you a nice horse, a Scat Daddy colt.” I wondered why he would send me a Scat Daddy, because I'm thinking sprinter or turf. He told me “He's special.” We finally moved him to Santa Anita. After he worked the first five-eighth at Santa Anita, on a tiring track, he did it easy, and Drayden Van Dyke was on him and said that horse looks pretty special. Elliott called me up and asked me what I thought. I said, “That horse can really run.” Elliott said “I've been telling you!” I remember joking with Marlow after working him from the gate. I called Mike and said, “You were wrong about that horse. I don't think he's as good as you thought.” He said, “Wow, I guess I was wrong.” I laughed and said I was just kidding. Everybody who works for me, they've been around and know what a good horse is.
What qualities does Justify share with some of the other top horses you've had in your barn?
He's got a really good mind. He's handled everything well. American Pharoah, Arrogate and Justify are superior horses that have that extra gear. When you work them, they do things in the morning so well. I love watching good horses work. When (Richard) Mandella had Beholder, I would watch her breeze and she did things so easy. This horse has brilliant speed, like Pharoah. Pharoah could have won the Breeders' Cup Sprint – he was that fast. This horse probably could, too.
I love getting on YouTube, watching all the great races. Seattle Slew to me was just a phenomenal horse. He had speed and then just added on to it with more speed. Spectacular Bid was like that, too. I used to watch Sunday Silence train and he had the same thing. Candy Ride was that kind of horse before he got hurt. You see these horses when they gallop out and you look at your watch and can't believe how fast they've gone. They're just something special.
One thing I've learned, and it was a hard lesson, is that you put the horse first and don't let ego run you. I've made some bad decisions in the past, but I have the clientele now that don't push. Elliott is great to work with. We huddle and call the plays together. It's been a good roll. I'm getting more good horses from some of the big outfits. When I got the call from Juddmonte (owner of Arrogate) to look for some yearlings for them, I said, “I think I've arrived.”
Justify's Breeder Seems To Have Right Touch
By Chelsea Hackbarth
Eagerly awaiting the birth of that year's foal crop, March 28, 2015 was an enormous day for the Glennwood Farm father-daughter team of John and Tanya Gunther. Not only did Tamarkuz score in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile in Dubai, but the Gunther-bred Materiality won the Florida Derby. Kentucky Derby winner Justify also chose that day to grace the earth with his presence.
Justify's breeding is a result of both father and daughter's insights.
“I really have to thank Tanya for her hard work and dedication,” John Gunther said. “She was doing pedigrees by hand at 8 and 9 years old!”
Gunther came across the mare Magical Illusion (Pulpit) at the 2005 Keeneland January sale. She had run third to the great Ashado in the CCA Oaks, and her price tag of $425,000 reflected that talent.
“She broke her maiden by 14 lengths, then won an allowance by 12 lengths,” Gunther said (It was actually 17 ½ lengths and 10 lengths, respectively). “I just had to have her because she showed heart and was super consistent.”
Covered by Ghostzapper, Magical Illusion produced the filly Stage Magic. The Gunthers retained her when she did not make her reserve as a yearling, and Stage Magic went on to be Grade 3-placed behind Groupie Doll at Ellis Park, earning $133,981.
When she went to the breeding shed, Stage Magic was lined up with the up-and-coming young stallion Scat Daddy, standing for a bargain $30,000 at the time. The mating was Tanya's suggestion.
Stage Magic and Scat Daddy's cross featured a unique inbreeding of full sisters, each by Mr. Prospector and out of Narrate. Preach, on the female-line side, was a Grade 1-winning juvenile and future dam of Pulpit. Yarn, on the male side, was the dam of Tale of the Cat. Justify's pedigree also includes some inbreeding to Nijinsky.
“Being a breeder, you have to sell some or you run out of money,” Gunther said wistfully. “Of course, there are those you'd rather keep… but I'd rather watch the foals playing in the field than the horses walking around the shed row any day.”
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