By William Nack
GQ, May 2003
By the late morning of last year’s Kentucky Derby, after watching War Emblem go through his final stretching exercises at Churchill Downs—his black coat looking sleek as mink as he jogged off the racetrack in the silver light—Robert Anthony Baffert sensed in the giddy hollows of his heart that he was about to spring upon an unsuspecting world the damnedest, grandest, sweetest upset of his racing life. “We had flown into Churchill Downs under the radar,” he says. “No one was thinking that this colt had a chance. Everything had come together for us. The horse was blooming. Just blooming! I just loved the horse. Loved his chances.”
The man is often accused of being inordinately cocky, even irreverent and vain to a fault, but no one on the racetrack has a clearer vision of how to get things done in Louisville on the first Saturday in May; nor does anyone have more manifest gifts as a horse whisperer, particularly when it comes to the kind of whispering that engages bright-eyed 3-year-olds. At the close of the last decade, Baffert had emerged as the hottest trainer in the game, a white-maned wizard of the turf whose singular feel for horses—his intuitive sense for picking out and buying potential champions, often at fire-sale prices, and his instinct for divining how to make them run, long and hard and fast—had already won him three Eclipse Awards, the sport’s Oscars. In a brief but spectacular run of six years—from the May afternoon in 1997 when one of his charges, Silver Charm, came romping home to win the 123rd running of the Kentucky Derby, through the transcendent victory of Point Given in the Belmont Stakes of 2001—the former Arizona cowboy had won more Triple Crown races than any other trainer in the land: two Derbys, three Preaknesses and that one Belmont.
In fact, had circumstances beyond his immediate reach not intervened—had Silver Charm seen a charging Touch Gold in time to hold him off in the Belmont; had jockey Kent Desormeaux not moved a quarter mile too soon on Real Quiet a year later; and had Point Given not been rushed too close to the fastest early pace in the history of the Derby, frying him like a strip of bacon—Baffert might well have pulled off the unprecedented feat of training three Triple Crown winners in five years. Those spring classics notwithstanding, the man was making history in every venue of the sport. He had twice won the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup, first with Silver Charm ($2.4 million) and then with Captain Steve ($3.6 million), and Arab sheiks were seen buttonholing him for advice on how to win the Derby. Out on the briskly competitive West Coast circuit, at Del Mar and Santa Anita, Baffert was scooping up training titles with such solar regularity that he had aroused what Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally described as a “terrible jealousy” among his backstretch peers. Baffert knockers were everywhere, circling his barns at Santa Anita, waiting for him to fail, and over the years he had certainly given them sufficient cause for their doubts and derision.
Of all Baffert’s audacious nose-thumbings, none has nettled the racing establishment more keenly than the sight of the man, his shirt and denims neatly creased and pressed, showing up for work at around eight o’clock in the morning; the horseman’s world is an old and insular culture in which it is written stone, with the force of a religious canon, that properly reverential trainers arrive at their barns before first light. All of his life, Baffert has heard the same digs. “What’s the matter, nothing good on Good Morning America today?” the old school’s Jack Van Berg chided him once at Hollywood Park. And Baffert responded as he always has: “Hey, Van Berg, they’re not paying me to be a night watchman.”
No trainer has suffered more grievously over Baffert’s triumphs than his biggest rival, D. Wayne Lukas—a fellow fugitive from the quarter-horse world—who had won nine Triple Crown races in the decade of the ’90s. One morning at Churchill Downs, as Baffert brought the powerful, if star-crossed, entry of Point Given and Congaree to the Derby, Lukas leaned back against his wooden barn and seemed in utter despair. “When I came into this game,” he said, “I believed that to succeed—to be the top dog—you had to get up at three-thirty every morning, be at the barn by four and work harder than everybody else. And then”—he nodded toward Baffert’s barn—“and then this guy comes along, showing up at eight o’clock, or even nine o’clock, and some days not at all. I don’t know how he does it. How do you figure it?”
Now here was Baffert back at Churchill Downs in May of 2002, trying to work yet another miracle on shedrow, this time with a reformed juvenile delinquent named War Emblem. Right behind them, with a horse given even less of a chance than War Emblem, was Lukas himself, leading a colt named Proud Citizen to battle. Just four weeks earlier, Baffert did not have a single decent 3-year-old to run in the Derby, the one racing event that had come to obsess and consume him. And then, on the afternoon of April 6, he was standing in the paddock at Santa Anita watching the Illinois Derby on a TV monitor when suddenly, almost magically, racing’s Jupiter aligned with Baffert’s Mars. The trainer was staring dumbstruck as this unknown colt named War Emblem, an aesthetic pleasure in the way he swept across the ground, sprinted to the lead, opened almost three lengths on the final turn, then pulverized the favored Repent through the stretch. Baffert’s fiancée, Jill Moss, approached him moments later.
“How did Repent do?” she asked.
“A long shot won by six. And boy, did he look like a racehorse! Went to the lead and never stopped.”
Four days later, one of Baffert’s leading patrons, a member of the Saudi royal family named Prince Ahmed bin Salman, shelled out $1 million for the colt and installed him in the trainer’s barn at Churchill Downs. What Baffert had on his hands, aside from the swiftest 3-year-old in Louisville, was the meanest, nastiest, most ornery racehorse on the grounds. “He’d stay in the back of his stall with his ears pinned,” he said. “He’d wrinkle his nostrils like a junkyard and bare his teeth and hiss at you. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Indeed, no horse he’d ever had, not even one of those souped-up, big-assed renegades from his days as a quarter-horse trainer, had so tested his skills. When the colt wasn’t hissing like a snake, he was running off in the mornings in the manner of a wild mustang, but Baffert and his crew worked steadily to calm him. By May 4, Derby Day, the colt had undergone a personality change so complete that horsemen who had known him as a desperado in New Orleans and Chicago looked at him in wonder. In less than four weeks, War Emblem had morphed into a gentlemanly, tractable sort who came to the door of his stall when he heard Jill’s voice and docilely nibbled peppermints from her palm. He had settled down on the track too. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” says trainer Tom Amoss. “The horse had a different personality. It was like he’d had a lobotomy. I don’t know how else to put it. An amazing turn of events. It was like Kurt Warner leaving European football to become Super Bowl MVP. The change was that dramatic.”
With the exception of the more observant horsemen, like Amoss and Lukas, War Emblem was sailing into the Derby largely unappreciated. No one gave Baffert or Lukas much of a chance, although, between them, they had won fifteen Triple Crown races in the past eight years, including six Derbys, and their colts were coming off front-running victories. Proud Citizen was hovering at 23 to 1 in the betting, and War Emblem was floating through the ether at 20 to 1. People were actually pulling for Baffert’s colt to lose. The fact that War Emblem was owned by a Saudi prince, that less than a year had passed since September 11 and, horror of horrors, that this wisecracking jokester and his Riyadh prince should conspire to win the Derby with an entry purchased only twenty-four days earlier was viewed, at least by the more myopic, as sinful—as though the duo’s bold gambit would stain the race’s rich history or somehow violate Bluegrass decency.
No matter. Baffert laughed at the scoffers. On the morning of the race, all he wanted was for jockey Victor Espinoza to break War Emblem fast out of the gate and send him to the front, then take a long hold of the reins and relax; and all the trainer had to hope was that another horse would not press the Emblem on the lead, forcing him into a suicidal pace through the early running. At 6:12 P.M., as the field of eighteen came pounding past the grandstand, charging like the Light Brigade around the first turn, Baffert was watching the scene of a lifetime unfold before him, the sweet fruit of his greatest of all training feats. As the horses swept past the wire, a quarter mile into the race, Baffert saw War Emblem bounding along on the lead, his strides smooth and effortless, and right outside him lay Proud Citizen, a half length behind. Baffert stared into the distance. He glanced at the teletimer: It flashed the opening quarter in a moderate 23.25 seconds, fast but not too fast. And then he saw Espinoza take a long hold of War Emblem and sit there on his back as still as a piece of painted statuary. The moment was frozen, like a diorama, before Baffert’s eyes. He felt a shudder go through him, the seismic stirrings of an out-of-body experience, and he was thinking:
Oh, my God! Oh, my God!
Baffert’s whole existence on the racetrack had been governed for years by that ancient worship of the raw, wind-shearing speed that is the hallmark of the quarter-horse tribe and which young Bobby had first learned to love while traveling at the knee of his father as they hauled a two-horse rig around the brown dusty Arizona fairs from Nogales to Flagstaff. Bob was born in Nogales, a cattle-and-produce center and railway terminus that lies hard by the Mexican border, some sixty-five miles south of Tucson. He was raised by his parents—Bill, a cattle rancher, quarter-horse breeder and dreamer, and Elbe, an elementary-school teacher and principal—on a 240-acre ranch near the outskirts of town, the fourth of seven children, three girls and four boys, who could hear coyotes crying in the night and could sit and listen to Alberto Joffroy, Elbe’s father, spin tales of the Old West. Of gunfights in the old Nogales streets. Of marauding Apache. Of the day many decades ago when the train bearing Alberto through Mexico was attacked by Yaqui Indians. The renegades shot three fingers off his right hand, put a bullet in his leg and pitched him off the observation car, leaving him for dead. The Baffert kids grew up without the opiate of television—the cows kept knocking down the antenna Bill planted in the field—and so they shared bread and stories and jokes without distraction at breakfast and dinner; consequently, the whole pack grew up as close and embracing as young wolves.
On the starkly brown hard-used landscape of the Baffert Ranch—so bleak, in fact, that Bob calls it “our Afghanistan”—Bill and Elbe raised Black Angus and Charolais cattle for market, and for years they owned the largest chicken ranch in southern Arizona, home at one time not only to thousands of clucking hens but also to a series of shell-cracking egg fights in which the kids made omelettes of each other’s faces. Bob took over the running of this enterprise in high school—he delivered hundreds of eggs a day to stores and restaurants in and around Nogales, learning how to be a salesman—and on the farm he drove the plows and worked the cattle herds. With older brother Bill he joined 4-H and raised bulls to show at the county fair in Sonoita. Ellie describes Bob as being “extremely fuchi.” In colloquial Mexican, that means finicky. He hated the dirty work of tending chickens, could not abide laboring in the grease of farm machinery, and always stood back and watched his father in the bloody business of castrating livestock.
Of all the kids, though, it was Bob who shared most passionately his father’s love for horses and racing. He was born on January 13, 1953, and by the time he was 12, the boy had ridden on a three-day, sixty-mile cattle drive on which he helped bring some 3,000 head north through Mexico. “Ever see the movie City Slickers?” he asks. “That was me.” By age 15, he was breaking under saddle the young quarter horses his father had bred on the ranch, a skill that takes unusual patience, a feel for the rudiments of equine psychology and an eye that can read a horse’s lips and body language. “He was already an accomplished horseman, just a kid, but better than most older guys,” says Bill senior, whom the Baffert boys called the Chief. “He was a natural.”
Bobby loved that world more than any other. Smelled it in the mornings when he ducked into the old green barn with the tin roof and the bays and chestnuts raised their heads and nickered. Felt it when he curried and brushed their supple, bulging coats. Itched for it all day long in school once he started riding match races. His father would pick him up outside the schoolhouse door, Bobby’s boots, helmet and whip right next to him on the passenger seat, and off they’d go, just the two of them, the dad promising not to tell Mother that the boy was riding races and the son promising his dad that he would not say a word about the old man’s beer drinking.
“Bob was the Chief’s son,” says Gamble, the youngest of the boys. “They were like clones.”
Often it was like they had gone back in time, to maybe Tombstone, circa 1881. One afternoon they ended up in Tubac, twenty miles up the road, with Bobby’s uncle Phil. Bobby had already won $100 when he agreed to ride the favorite in the main event. The Chief had just bet $500 on his son’s horse when he found out the fix was in—two of the entries had the same owners, and the owners had been stiffing the faster one in order to cash in. So the horses broke from the gate, and the other jock got a jump on Bobby and took the lead. There were 2,000 people in attendance, and their cars and pickups lined both sides of the track. Suddenly, as the other jock started whipping his horse left-handed, the animal bolted right off the course and charged around the parked cars. People were diving everywhere. Bobby looked over and saw the runaway horse heading through some trees, the branches whipping at the jock’s face, and then he looked straight ahead and saw a wall of people pinching off the track and he screamed, “Get out of the way!” and they dove clear as he drove past them all alone. “Whooosh!” he says. “I win the race!” The cowboys had been drinking all day, and no sooner had Bobby ridden back to pick up his money than a fight broke out. The fix had failed. Next thing he knew, this car came roaring up and a Mexican jumped out with a rifle and fired a shot and screamed, “iVoy a matarte, cabrón!” (“I’m gonna kill you, you SOB!”)
“Hit the deck!” yelled Phil.
Everybody dropped to his belly. More shots were fired. Fights broke out all over. The place looked like the saloon brawl in Destry Rides Again. People scrambled off like scorpions toward their cars. “What about my money?” Bobby yelled.
“The hell with your money!” cried Phil. They drove off in a gossamer of dust. “We can’t tell your mother about this,” warned the Chief.
“It was not about how much money you had,” he says. “It was about one thing: Who has the fastest horse?”
In 1970, when he was 17, Baffert rode his very first winner in a sanctioned race at Flagstaff, when he climbed aboard a bullet named Sizzling Snark and rushed him home to victory, screaming, “Yooo-hooo!” “I thought, My God, it doesn’t get any better than this,” he says. “It was like I had won the Kentucky Derby.”
Underlying all this unbridled joy, of course, was the elemental seduction that occurs when boy meets speed. “I loved the sensation,” Baffert says. “It was sooo much fun. Forty miles an hour. You were on a really good one. it was like comin’ down a ski slope, haulin’ ass! A really good one, when they take off, they vibrate underneath you.”
Speed had long been revered as the central divinity of that world, its prime mover, and Baffert was among its most ardent apostles. “It was not about how much money you had,” he says. “It was about one thing: Who has the fastest horse? It was like the Old West on that county-fair circuit. ‘My horse can beat the hell out of your horse.’ ‘My horse is the best.’ ‘I have the fastest horse.’ That’s all you talked about.” Baffert remembers going with the Chief to a bar near Nogales, a place called the Wagon Wheel, and sitting there with the dreamers, talking about the mares they had and the stallions they were going to breed them to. “Everybody owned a mare, and everybody dreamed of breeding and raising a good quarter horse,” Baffert recalls, “of having the fastest quarter horse anywhere. That was everything to us. It meant everything!” And he looks back with fondness on the time he and the Chief hopped in the station wagon and drove to Ruidoso, New Mexico, to see the All American Futurity, the Kentucky Derby of the sport, and there met an old breeder who told them he was sending his broodmares to Easy Jet, then a leading quarter-horse stallion, and the old man fixed his eyes on the Chief and said, “Who you breedin’ your mares to?”
“To a horse in Arizona named Sonoitan,” said the Chief.
The old man drew himself up, looking suspiciously at Bobby’s father, and said, “Sonoitan? Never heard of him. Did he ever run?”
“He was a show horse,” said the Chief.
“Oh,” the old man said in a slow drawl. “You’re one of them guys who jus’ likes to watch his mares fuck.” Bob still laughs when he tells that story, but it was among those cowboys that he came to adopt that unending fundamental quest to have the fastest horse.
Hard as he tried, from little Rillito Downs in Tucson to Los Alamitos in Southern California, Baffert never did make it as a jockey. Oh, he would ride his share of winners through the ’70s, but he was always starving himself to make weight—“I was so skinny, the cheeks of my ass didn’t come together,” he says—and he had no manual finesse in the heat of a race. “He was absolutely horrendous,” says quarter-horse trainer John Bassett, his most kindred of spirits. “He couldn’t ride a hog in a phone booth.” One day Bassett had Baffert on a filly named Deb’s Star in a county-fair futurity in Holbrook, Arizona, and Baffert was barreling nose-to-nose with another horse when he tried to switch his stick from his right hand to his left, an elementary maneuver for a race rider. Alas, his hands got tangled in the lines and the whip sailed into the infield. It cost Deb’s Star any chance to win. Baffert had known Bassett for some time—their fathers were old pals—and after the race Bassett urged Baffert to hang it up. “Bobby, you’re gonna have to quit ridin’,” he told him. “This is gonna ruin our friendship.”
Like all the other Baffert children. Bob had attended the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he was an indifferent student. He joined a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and for five years he partied to a fare-thee-well. “I majored in campus wildlife,” he says. “I was a clown. The older generation always said, ‘Don’t be so silly,’ but I liked silly.”
He lived in his family’s Tucson house, a place they dubbed the Pink Poodle, and slept only as an afterthought. He streaked through one party and attended another where the revelers dressed up in togas, the John Belushi costume of the day. “It was like Animal House,” says brother Bill. “We saw that movie twenty-five times. That was Bob. Remember in the end when they wrote on-screen what had happened to everybody: The military guy got killed by his own troops in Vietnam; the Belushi character drove off with the girl and went on to be a senator. For Bob it would have said: ‘Bobby Baffert became a Thoroughbred horse trainer and won three Kentucky Derbys.’”
Even in college, drawn to its rhythms, he never really left the racetrack. He always scheduled his first class no earlier than 10 A.M. “That way I could gallop horses in the mornings at Rillito Downs,” he says. “I could make fifty bucks a day, five bucks a head.”
Baffert finally did graduate, with a degree in animal science and racetrack management, his name inscribed on his diploma in midnight oil, and for years he carried in his wallet a miniature copy of that document just to prove he had made it to the finish line. He started training full-time on the Arizona fair circuit, and in some ways these early professional years were simply an extension of his college days. He ran with Bassett everywhere. The two men are virtual teetotalers now, but back in the late ’70s they cut a rug in the cowboy bars. “We stuffed sixty years of drinkin’ into twenty,” says Bassett. “We were out of control. Bobby’s got an air—he can be short with people, and you want to choke him occasionally—but he’s gentle. You couldn’t melt and pour him into a fight. He got us into plenty of ’em, but then he watched.”
Baffert has always surrounded himself with people who could make him laugh, and Bassett, with his droll cowboy humor and deadpan delivery, was always happy to oblige. In the early ’80s, they were having dinner one night with Reba McEntire, the country-and-western singer whose father, like Bassett’s, had been a rodeo roper. Baffert never followed C&W—he played the guitar and listened to the Eagles—and near the end of the meal he quietly asked Bassett, “Has Reba got a big hit?”
“Yeah,” said Bassett. “Reba’s got a monster.”
“What’s it called?”
Bassett leaned in his ear: “It’s called ‘Big Balls in Cowtown.’”
“Really?” said Bob.
“Yeah, ol’ buddy, and it’s been number one on the country-western charts for three months.”
As they started to leave, Bob said, “Reba, congratulations on that big hit you’ve had.”
“Which one do you like, Bob?” she asked.
“Why, ‘Big Balls in Cowtown,’” Baffert said.
Mclntyre looked startled. “Pardon me?” she asked.
Baffert shot a glance at Bassett, who was heading for the door. “Bassett, you sonuvabitch!”
By then young Baffert had become the dominant figure in quarter-horse racing in Arizona. He had been scuffling for years at the fairs, first for his father and then for a line of clients, doing it all—hauling and riding horses, exercising and grooming them, feeding and training them—and the work had begun to pay off. “I had to crawl for a lot of years,” he says. “I was in the trenches with my dad forever. But I loved it.” He had won just about everything there was to win when, in 1983, at age 30, he decided to move his stable to Los Alamitos, the most competitive quarter-horse track in America, and in three years he became a major force there too. One year on Halloween night, he won a race and walked into the winner’s circle with a pumpkin over his head, drawing howls of laughter from the crowd. By the time he left the sport to devote himself to Thoroughbreds, he had twice won the most important race for older horses, the Champion of Champions, first with his 1986 world champion, Gold Coast Express, and then with Shawnes Favorite. He had won 978 quarter-horse races in his career, his charges earning more than $7 million in purses. If that seemed a princely sum, Baffert also knew it was about $10 million less than Lukas’s Thoroughbreds had won in 1987 alone.
“I had a blast in quarter-horse racing, but it wasn’t going to get any bigger,” Baffert says. “You go to a certain level, and that’s it. With Thoroughbreds, the sky’s the limit.”
What he brought to the show, his quips and clowning aside, was an uncannily sharp eye for horseflesh. (“I like a horse with a big, good-looking ass,” he says. “Like J.Lo.”) In 1988, in his first trip to the Keeneland Race Course sales in Lexington, Kentucky, to buy a yearling, he found just what he wanted. “This big, beautiful gray horse,” says Baffert. He took him home for $30,000 and called him Thirty Slews. Four years later, Baffert saddled him to win the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He headed for the winner’s circle thinking, It doesn’t get any better than this.
It did, but not before he suffered the cruelest defeat of his life. Baffert had long dreamed of winning the Derby, and in 1996 he fetched to Churchill Downs a little California-bred gelding named Cavonnier. “I was like a kid going to Toys ‘R’ Us for the first time,” he says. He can still see the horse today on the final turn, can hear himself scream over the shoulder of his then wife Sherry: “‘Sonuvabitch! He has the fuckin’ lead!’ That’s when you get very religious: ‘Please, God!’ And then I look back and I see Grindstone coming. I’m chanting: ‘Come on, Cav! Come on, Cav!’” Five yards from the wire, Cav was still in front, but the Lukas-trained Grindstone was at his throat. They hit the wire together. Grindstone won it by a dirty inch. Baffert moved in a daze. For months he keened in fitful despair, certain he had lost his only chance to win a Derby. Unbeknownst to him. he already had the ’97 Derby winner in his fold. Two weeks before Cavonnier’s loss, he saw a sales video of a lovely gray colt with a smooth, powerful stride and a hind end that might have been built by Boeing.
He bought the colt for $85,000, in one of the great steals of the decade, and sold him to Bob and Beverly Lewis. Silver Charm fought off a charging Captain Bodgit in the final drive at the Downs. He won it by a head. A year later, Baffert won again with Real Quiet, a colt he had bought for a measly $17,000 and sold to his old friend Mike Pegram. who had helped underwrite Bob’s first ventures in the sport. In return for his early support, Baffert also gave Pegram a piece of Thirty Slews.
When Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby by a half length over Victory Gallop on May 2, 1998, the triumph crowned one of the most startling training feats of the last half century. In an age of multimillion-dollar yearlings, of spiraling stud fees, of trainers too bland or obtuse to interview, the swaggering, wisecracking Bobby Fuchi bought two horses for a combined total of $102,000—less than the Arabs pay in taxes on their purchases each year—and nearly won two Triple Crowns with them.
Last year, having loved what he saw of War Emblem in the Illinois Derby, Baffert and Prince Ahmed’s general manager, Richard Mulhall, winged from Burbank to Keeneland on a chartered jet ($12,500 round-trip) to inspect the colt. Baffert had called a writer at Daily Racing Form, Jay Privman, to find out the Beyer Speed Figure the horse had earned in Illinois. (The number indicates how fast a horse has run relative to the speed of the racing surface). War Emblem had come away with a 112, by far the biggest “fig” of any 3-year-old. Mulhall noticed that some of the stable workers seemed “scared of the horse.” Baffert asked the colt’s trainer, Frank Springer, if he had ever run him with a tongue-tie—a strap wrapped round the lower jaw to keep the tongue from flopping and blocking his wind.
“No, I figure if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Springer. “It would be hard to get that on him, anyway. He’s tough.”
The black colt was animated and sound. Baffert and Mulhall decided right there to buy him. “If you can’t move him up,” Mulhall told Baffert. “we’re in a lot of trouble.”
In the days leading to the Derby, Baffert seemed more at ease than he had in years. He had become engaged to Jill in December 2001, and she was showing off the diamond on the backstretch at Churchill. “This is the only jewel I’m going to see in the Triple Crown,” she said.
They had met in April of 1998, when she was a career-driven morning coanchor at WLKY-32 in Louisville. Bob was married at the time, the father of four children—Taylor, Forest, Savannah and Canyon—but his wife, Sherry, was a devoted mother who preferred staying at home with the kids to visiting with the horses. “We drifted apart.” Baffert says. “There was no way to drift back.”
He was hungering for someone to share in his professional life—the triumphs and the defeats, the passion he felt for the animals and the game—when Jill came out to Churchill Downs to do a series of morning interviews with him. “It was an instant attraction,” she says. “He is very charismatic. He drew me in. Some people have a star quality. He had it. This is not something you aspire to, falling for a married man. I know the appearance it gave. I’m not that person. But I am that person. I fell in love with the man.”
And he with her. They became romantically involved. Over the next three and a half years, by her count, they broke up eighteen times. “I could always tell when he was getting ready to do it,” she says. “The guilt would overwhelm him. He’d go home, break up with me, and two days later he was back: ‘I’m so sorry. I can’t live without you.’” He simply couldn’t bring himself to end it. “I would send him off,” she says. “I told him, ‘Leave me alone until you get your life straightened out. Make an honest woman out of me.’ In his heart he wanted to do what he thought was right for the kids.” Her own family in Tennessee spun in similar turmoil: “My mom said, ‘What are you thinking? This man is 46 years old, and he has four kids? He’s in a midlife crisis.’ I took a lot of heat at work. There was a time when they were threatening to take me off the air.”
“He is very charismatic. He drew me in. Some people have a star quality. He had it.”
The Bafferts are Catholic, and the dissolution of Bob’s marriage, especially the public nature of it, caused anguish and heartbreak throughout the family. Baffert wishes now that he had made the split sooner.
“I should have done it right away,” he says. “It was difficult, because I was trying to run a business at the highest level and I was in the hot seat. At the same time, I’m dealing with two adult lives plus four children.” Today he and Jill wish they had done some things differently; their relationship was on public display for years. “We did what we did,” Jill says. “We are not proud of what we did. We’re ashamed of some things that happened, but we’re not ashamed of our love for each other.”
Ultimately, Jill gave up her career in Kentucky to be with Bob in California. He was divorced in the fall of 2001.
Baffert and his new fiancée were expecting to be mere observers of the Triple Crown when War Emblem, baring his teeth, bounced into his Churchill shed. “I had to get inside his head,” Baffert said. “I’d had horses like him before. I said, ‘I’m gonna treat him just like I treated the headcases in the quarter-horse days.’”
And that, insists Bassett, was Baffert’s edge. “You can’t compare the quarter horse to the Thoroughbred when it comes to explosive quickness and power,” he said, “and that power has to be harnessed. You don’t manage that right and they can be idiots. Think about it: You’re asking a large, muscular animal with so much power and so much speed—and such a short fuse—to stand in a starting gate and look down that racetrack while knowin’ that there’s an ass-whippin’ comin’ in ten seconds, just as bad an ass-whippin’ as a jock can put on a horse, and you gotta make him stand there and take that. There’s a skill at keeping those fiery horses calm, quiet and patient. The quarter-horse trainer knows how to work inside a horse’s head and get the money.”
Baffert did everything he could to turn War Emblem around. He placed him on a “heavy-feed program” to put weight on him. He had Jill slipping him carrots and candy daily, urging her to win the horse’s trust. He gave the colt to his best groom, Roberto Luna, who gentled him and even got a tongue-tie on him. He assigned the horse a large, unflappable cow pony from Wyoming to take him to the track, one trained to endure, stoically, the craziest of shenanigans. War Emblem calmed down noticeably when Baffert had his exercise rider, Englishman Mick Jenner, walk and jog him around the oval counterclockwise before breaking him into a steady gallop. “That stopped him from jumping around like an idiot,” Jenner says. The colt worked three times for Baffert, and you could see the changes in him from week to week. Amoss recognized the transformation. So did Lukas. “Every day he got better, calmer and more settled,” he says. “By Derby Day, I knew he was the horse to beat.”
Before the race, Lukas met with Mike Smith, his rider, and told him to lie close but not to move until the far turn. Baffert summoned Espinoza to his office that morning. Together they watched a tape of the Illinois Derby. Baffert implored the rider to sit chilly. “Victor, you’ll be on the lead when you make the first turn,” he said. “Believe me! Just slow him down. But don’t choke him. Have you ever made love to a really pretty girl and, you know, it’s like the chance of a lifetime? And you don’t want it to end? I want you to say that on this horse: ‘No, no, no! Not yet!’ Bite down on the nail, Victor. You’ve got to control your emotions. You’re gonna be on the lead and you’re gonna get real excited passing the three-eighths pole, but you have to control it. Don’t panic! Stay chilly on him.”
And there it was all unfolding, seven hours later, like this eerily familiar rerun of Baffert’s divination. War Emblem had had a perfect trip under a perfect ride—a half in a modest forty-seven seconds, six furlongs in 1:11.75!—and Espinoza had not moved. Baffert was staring at the colt as he scissored along, clickety-clicking a half length in front of Proud Citizen, and as they swept the final turn, Baffert was feeling the shudder and the rush as the crowd stood roaring louder and louder. Baffert called to his bride-to-be; “Still cruisin’, Jill. Still cruisin’.”
And all at once he saw War Emblem banking off the final turn for home, and he watched as Victor moved on the horse for the first time, his hands taking a new cross on the lines. Proud Citizen strained his neck to challenge, but War Emblem came bounding off the turn like a deer across a clearing. The colt finished four in front of Proud Citizen, and they all gamboled to the winner’s circle, Baffert and Jill and the prince, who was near tears as he grabbed the trainer: “Pinch me, Bob. Tell me I’m not dreaming.”
Nine months later, on a sparkling February morning at Santa Anita, Baffert is watching a set of his horses gallop past him on the main track, near the finish line. He has just lost Vindication, the winter-book favorite for this year’s Derby, to a strained ligament in his left front leg. But no sooner had the horse nicknamed the Black Ferrari gone down than another Baffert colt, Kafwain, winner of the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes, replaced him as the horse to beat. “Here comes Domestic Dispute,” says the trainer, pointing to yet another of his stakes-winning contenders. “Look at the way he carries his head. Like a boxer, like he’s gonna bull his way through everything. He’s my Real Quiet.”
Baffert also has a promising colt named During, a lightly raced son of the speedy Cherokee Run.
But not every loss can be remedied with such ease. One month after War Emblem stumbled at the Belmont, following another stirring victory in the Preakness, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, 43, died of a heart attack. Before his death, he had called Mulhall and asked him to buy Bob and Jill a present for their August 3 wedding: all the china, crystal and silverware on their bridal registry at Tiffany. “All of it?” asked Mulhall.
“Yes, all of it,” said the prince. The bill came to $60,000.
“A sweet man,” says Baffert. “The prince loved America. I want to meet his little boy and tell him how I won the Derby for his dad.”
It is late morning now, and the white-maned wizard is back at the barn. His horses have come to the doors of their stalls and they are watching him pass by. He stops at the end of the shed and looks at the manes blowing in a flutter of wind. “I just love ’em,” he says. “I love the smell of their muzzles. Remember the movie Ben-Hur? Remember the Arab guy who owned the white horses Ben-Hur drove in the chariot race? That’s me, the Arab guy. Remember how he talked about them? ‘They are my family. They are my children.’ That’s how I feel about my horses. They are my family. They are my children.”
And only they can answer the question that forever haunts him, that keeps him driving and remains so central to his passion for racing: Who’s got the fastest horse?
[Photo Credit: You Tube]