STORY & PHOTOS BY JEFF NUNN
IN A SPORT where the competition is based on four-legged creatures, why is it that the sport’s biggest star is a two-legged man that isn’t even on the track during the race? Is it because his white hair makes him recognizable to even the most casual fan? Is it because of the mystery that lurks behind those ever-present sunglasses? Is it because of the way he presents himself as confident and positive yet humble? Is it because he is so approachable and friendly?
Yes, yes, yes and yes. All of those attributes help distinguish Baffert as the biggest star in the sport, but what really makes him the star is that he is really good at training horses. And because he is good at training horses, his horses win a lot of races. Not just any races – the most prestigious races.
But the 2009 Hall of Fame inductee wasn’t always the best. He worked his way to the top and has endured the ups and downs of the sport since winning his first Triple Crown race in 1997 with Silver Charm.
Young Baffert grew up on his parents’ ranch in Arizona and became a jockey of Quarter Horses during his teen years. He then began training and scored his first victory at age 17. Out of high school, he asked D. Wayne Lukas for a job, but Lukas turned him down. He graduated from the University of Arizona’s race track industry program with a bachelor’s degree. In the early 1980s, he moved to Southern California and trained four champion Quarter Horses. He made the switch to thoroughbreds in 1988 with a purchase at an auction and won his first Breeders Cup race in 1992 with that purchase of a horse named Thirty Slews.
Baffert came up just a nose short in his first Triple Crown race as Cavonnier finished second in the 1996 Kentucky Derby. In 1997 (Silver Charm) and 1998 (Real Quiet), Baffert won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes only to fall one race short of the Triple Crown when both lost in the Belmont Stakes. He became the first trainer in history to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in back-to-back years. After a disappointing fifth place finish in the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Point Given, his horse went on to win both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. In 2002, Baffert won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with War Emblem only to lose in the Belmont Stakes. It was yet another lost opportunity to take the Triple Crown. He didn’t win another Triple Crown race until the 2010 Preakness with Lookin At Lucky.
“EVEN IF JUSTIFY DOESN’T WIN THE TRIPLE CROWN, THIS WILL GO DOWN AS BAFFERT’S GREATEST TRAINING FEAT OF ALL TIME AND QUITE POSSIBLY THE GREATEST TRAINING FEAT EVER.”
In 2015, Baffert finally captured that elusive Triple Crown with American Pharoah. It was the first time in 37 years since that feat had been accomplished and twelfth time overall in the sport’s more than 140-year history.
This year, Baffert won the Kentucky Derby for the fifth time when Justify took home the roses. The victory moved Baffert into second place all time, one behind Ben Jones who trained in the 1940s.
Baffert and Justify also won the 2018 Preakness Stakes, giving Baffert his seventh Preakness victory, which moved him into a tie with Robert Wyndham Walden, who trained from 1875 to 1888. That Preakness victory also moved him into a tie with D. Wayne Lucas for the most Triple Crown race victories of all time (14).
The attempt to win the Belmont Stakes on June 9 would give Baffert his second Triple Crown winner in three years.