It's Belmont time again. On American Pharoah rest the hopes and prayers of every tired soul who wants to see this Triple Crown jinx finally end after 37 years. Heck, that seems like eons, not years ago. Tom Brady was still in diapers then and Tiger Woods wasn't old enough to be a child prodigy.
However, standing in the wings this year, waiting to be included in very select company, is a trainer who was denied the Crown three times in the Belmont around the turn of this century. Now he's back and if anybody can pull it off, he might be the chosen one.
As luck would have it, right in the middle of Bob Baffert's streak, I got to spend a few days with a trainer who has taken horsemanship to his own level. It was the spring of 1999, right after his Triple Crown near misses with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. I was doing a television profile for the CBS News program “Sunday Morning.” We sat outside his barn at Santa Anita, talking for hours about what makes Bob Baffert tick. He was colorful and full of excitement.
Most of that interview has never seen the light of day before now. Here are some revealing tidbits about the man and his horse sense:
“We trainers live from one great horse to another.” He was talking about Cavonnier, who lost the Kentucky Derby by a nose in 1996. “First time at the Derby and it's so hard to win. Losing that was probably the toughest loss I think I ever had to endure. I mean, that lasted the whole year…I never thought I'd be back…and then when Silver Charm won, all of a sudden, I'm a genius overnight. Then Real Quiet wins. Boy, I'm really flying now.”
He was on a roll. “When you have these horses where they like to give you these heart attacks, where they just like to win by a little bit, I mean it's more exciting for the fans, but for me, that's where the white hair comes in, from all those close finishes.”
I asked him about growing up on the family's ranch in Arizona, breaking Quarter horses and eventually training them, how that helped him when he switched to Thoroughbreds. “You've ridden them and done everything as a little kid, you develop the personalities of these horses. They're smart and intelligent animals, you know? You sorta have to outsmart 'em. They are very competitive. They know when they win and lose.”
But the successes are obviously more palatable and, therefore, always more memorable. “Silver Charm, for one, very lazy horse. Didn't want to do anything. But when he laid his body down, he always came through for you. So you had to make sure he was fit. I've had other horses…very high strung. You have to really work with them, put more hours in.”
And that's when Baffert began to talk like the “horse whisperer,” as the eminent journalist Bill Nack once called him. Here is Baffert, “It's dealing with the personalities, the horse sense, they can't talk to us. Body language, that's the only way we can see how they're doing. They tell us, by looking at their eyes, how sharp they are.”
Even after those first stinging defeats in the Belmont that had cost him the Triple Crown, he was still resolute about the Kentucky Derby being the most important race on his calendar. “I train my horses just for the Derby. We don't train for the Triple Crown. After the Derby, it's like a survival test, you know.”
“He is very much still a cowboy, very much laid back. Loves the oneliner, homespun humor.” That was Bill Nack. We knew each other from the backside and he had just wandered by the Baffert barn, a popular place for journalists. He immediately zeroed in on Baffert's bucket list. “I think he's won the Derby so much, he's very relaxed coming to the Derby. I think what is really consuming him is winning the Triple Crown. He's just missed it twice. And I think that is now his consuming passion.”
That was 16 years ago. His trademark sunglasses have made him somewhat of a mystery man. He had a heart attack a few years ago. So, It's hard to fathom how Bob Baffert, shades and all, is keeping his cool leading up to this year's Belmont with the favored American Pharoah. The pressure must be enormous, but there seems to be enough Zen in Baffert that could help him and his horse get to the finish line.
As he told me those many years ago, “I like to have these horses, where they turn for home, like a Secretariat, and they open it up by 30 lengths. To me, that's a trainer's dream. You can sit there and watch the stretch run, relax, have a coke, take a bite out of your hot dog, whatever, you know?”
E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III is the former Executive Producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He has won four Eclipse Awards for his racetrack profiles.
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