Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has a fourth chance at the Triple Crown. He will saddle American Pharoah, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y.
It takes a minute or so to walk from the racetrack at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., to the barns in back.
Through the parking lot and down a dirt path, the man with the shock of white hair and ostrich-skin cowboy boots waves at everyone who calls his name. People want to shake his hand and congratulate him. They all say pretty much the same thing.
Just one more win.
Today on TV
Belmont Stakes show, 1:30 p.m., Ch. 5 (post time is about 3:50 p.m.)
Bob Baffert qualifies as a rock star in the world of Thoroughbred racing, instantly recognizable by that hair and the dark sunglasses he wears, even on a cloudy morning.
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The 62-year-old trainer has guided his latest star pupil, American Pharoah, to victories at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. One more victory — at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday in Elmont, N.Y. — would secure the Triple Crown, a feat no horse has accomplished since Affirmed in 1978.
Baffert has been here before. Three times he has traveled to the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown, only to fall short.
“It’s a different vibe for me this time,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it.”
The Hall of Famer has settled on an unexpected approach to the Belmont. “I’m prepared to lose,” he said.
Baffert started as a trainer of quarter horses. A prominent owner, fast-food magnate Mike Pegram, who is a former Mount Vernon resident, persuaded Baffert to try Thoroughbreds, which seemed like another world. The horses could be temperamental. Some of the people wore Rolexes and arrived at the track in fancy cars.
“I show up with my cowboy hat and pickup truck,” Baffert recalled. “I was scared to death.”
The new guy maintained a confident facade but also asked lots of questions, picking the brains of established trainers such as Charlie Whittingham, Laz Barrera and especially D. Wayne Lukas, who had also started with quarter horses. Baffert gave himself three years to make it or leave.
Baffert-trained Thirty Slews, purchased for $30,000, won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1992. Cavonnier nearly won the 1996 Kentucky Derby, falling short by a nose.
More victories translated into more owners knocking on the barn door, bringing good horses.
Three Baffert-trained runners — Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002 — doubled up at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. A stable that used to earn less than $2 million a year was bringing in six times as much.
Not that Baffert was unanimously popular. Call it self-assurance or ego, but his personality rubbed some people the wrong way.
There were strained relations with jockeys Baffert hired and quickly replaced when they failed to produce.
“I can get mad and snap at people,” Baffert said. “If a horse loses, I’m moody.”
Even when Baffert was on a roll, he came up short at the Belmont, with Silver Charm losing by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold and Real Quiet finishing second by a nose to Victory Gallop.
“A nose,” Baffert said. “That was a brutal beat.”
Baffert won the Belmont with Point Given, who was fifth in the Derby, in 2001.
In the late 1990s, his marriage to Sherry, with whom he had four children, was disintegrating and he was seen in the company of a younger woman, a Louisville television anchor named Jill Moss. That did not sit well with many in the conservative realm of horse racing.
Then came a string of unimpressive results at the Kentucky Derby through the mid-2000s.
Maybe it was time to regroup. Baffert married Jill in 2002 and they had a son, Bode. Bob Baffert continued to pursue what he called “this madness — I’m thinking horses 24/7.”
Victor Espinoza, who will ride American Pharoah on Saturday, said, “I don’t think I could do his job. There are no days off.”
Baffert had a heart attack in 2012.
Seven horses in his stable at Hollywood Park died mysteriously over the course of 16 months, prompting California officials to investigate. Though authorities cleared Baffert in late 2013, they noted he regularly gave all of his horses a thyroid drug to enhance their strength.
It was a common practice at the time, but Baffert quickly backed off and said: “The last thing in the world I want to be known as is a cheater.”
American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby by a length on May 2 and romped by 7 lengths in the Preakness on a wet track at Pimlico in Baltimore three weeks ago.
“Bode could probably train this horse,” he said.
Baffert is trying to keep his excitement in check before the 1½-mile Belmont.
“I’ve seen a lot of great horses get to this point and lose,” he said.