Hall of Famer Bob Baffert Driven by Rare Intensity

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Bob Baffert describes racing as a “game of hopes and dreams.”

His hopes were realized long ago when he left behind a ranch in Nogales, Ariz., where his family raised cattle and chickens, to establish himself as one of the finest trainers of all time. That lofty status does not keep him from dreaming of future successes.

“We’re always looking at those 2-year-olds coming up,” said Baffert, 66.

So many 2-year-olds fulfilled their promise by blossoming into exceptional horses under Baffert’s keen eye. He boasts five Kentucky Derby triumphs, seven Preakness wins and a trio of victories in the Belmont Stakes. He ranks second to D. Wayne Lukas with 15 Breeders’ Cup wins, five behind Lukas. With $28,815,000 in Breeders’ Cup earnings, he holds the record among trainers.

Baffert has enjoyed the ride of a lifetime in recent years. On his fourth crack at a Triple Crown, American Pharoah broke through for him in 2015 after Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002) were denied in the Belmont Stakes. Pharoah’s emergence as the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first in 37 years captivated the nation. 

Baffert with American Pharoah. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Beyond that, the brilliantly managed colt produced the sport’s first “Grand Slam” when he added a dominant victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to his scintillating sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. It was Baffert’s second consecutive victory in the Classic, a season-culminating race that had represented one of the few holes in his résumé before Bayern broke through in 2014.

Three years after American Pharoah, an unraced 2-year-old named Justify broke Apollo's curse en route to winning Baffert's second Triple Crown, retiring undefeated in July 2018.

The Derby, though, is the race that gets Baffert’s adrenaline pumping more than any other. The former Quarter Horse trainer developed an insatiable hunger to win the race after Grindstone, trained by Lukas, launched a desperate rally to overtake Baffert’s Cavonnier by a nose in the 1996 Derby. He rebounded, of course, when Silver Charm and Real Quiet took the opening two legs of the Triple Crown in the next two years.

“When I ran second with Cavonnier in the Derby, which was just the most brutal loss of my career, that really, really got me going on the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert said.

Baffert’s personality is complex. Although he portrays a casual, easygoing demeanor, those close to him suggest that he possesses a rare intensity.

“The general horse population doesn’t give Bob Baffert the credit he deserves for being a good horseman,” retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens said. “He sees things that I feel on a horse sometimes before I feel it.”

Stevens noted that there is much more to Baffert than a quick wit that makes him one of the most entertaining figures on the backstretch.

“He’s very, very intense,” Stevens said. “When I’m alone with him, that’s when I get to know the real Bob Baffert. What you see in front of the cameras is different from the Bob Baffert I know when I’m working with him in the morning. He’s very focused.”

Baffert was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame in 2009. He made significant lifestyle changes, leaving much of the travel to top assistant Jimmy Barnes, after he suffered a heart attack in Dubai in March 2012. He did not alter the relentlessness of his approach.

“The Kentucky Derby and the classics will really keep our competitive juices flowing if you can have a horse good enough to run in those races,” Baffert said.

He is guided by a conversation he had with the late Bob Lewis, owner of Silver Charm and other top horses.

“He told me ‘Never look back. Just keep going forward,’ ” Baffert said. “And that’s the game.”

Stevens is confident greater glory awaits Baffert. The only question may be when and where he will strike next.

“He’s far from over,” Stevens said.

Fun Facts

  • Baffert briefly sold veterinary supplies and worked as substitute teacher following graduation from University of Arizona 
  • Has a son, Bode, named after former world-class skier Bode Miller, an Olympic gold medalist
  • Wife, Jill, is a former television reporter in Louisville
  • He was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame beside Silverbulletday, one of the top fillies he trained
  • Inducted into Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 2010
  • Is one of only two trainers to have conditioned more than one Triple Crown winner

This story was first published in 2016. It has been updated.

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