LOUISVILLE - Bob Baffert never had trouble taking time to smell the roses, especially here at the world’s most famous horse race.
The white-haired Californian has won the Kentucky Derby three times and reveled in all that goes with it. Rare is the spring where the charismatic trainer doesn’t have a legitimate contender or three for the Derby, a race he lives and breathes to participate in.
Living, breathing and just getting a chance to smell the blanket of roses awarded to the winner on Saturday evening are now something the hall-of-fame trainer no longer takes for granted, however.
On March 26, the 59-year-old was flying to Dubai to saddle Game On Dude in the sport’s richest race, the $10-million Dubai World Cup, when he began to feel ill. After landing and visiting his horses, Baffert’s condition worsened and his wife Jill insisted he proceed to the hospital.
Within hours, he was having major surgery to clear up two blocked arteries that had caused him to suffer a mild heart attack.
Though on medication, Baffert is surviving the stress of Derby week rather well, including the added load of keeping the morning-line favourite, Bodemeister, on his toes. Not that he ever took his success for granted, but Baffert says he is managing not to sweat the small things.
“I’m finding that I’m enjoying the sport better now,” Baffert said Thursday morning after tending to Bodemeister and Liaison, his long shot other entrant in Saturday’s 138th edition of the Derby. “This game, it can really get you down, but a lot of it is with things you can’t control. I just feel like I’m living on bonus time right now and trying to enjoy it more.”
On the insistence of Jill and 7-year-old son Bode — for whom the Derby fave is named — Baffert has changed his ways away from the racetrack. Gone are the juicy steaks and Diet Cokes that were the staples of his diet.
“I’ve never eaten as much fish in my life,” said Baffert, who has lost 14 pounds from his already slight frame. “I thought I was invincible. I don’t feel like I’m invincible now.”
Baffert has been around enough Kentucky Derbys to know his horse is far from invincible as well, especially in this 20-horse field loaded with a half-dozen serious contenders. He’s won it three times (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in ’98 and War Emblem 2002) but twice has lost with the beaten favourite. Most frustrating of those was in ’01 when Point Given was a surprising fifth, only to return and win both the Preakness and Belmont stakes.
Bodemeister certainly looks the part of a favourite this year after the most visually impressive final prep race of any in this field. Racing in the Arkansas Derby, the son of 2003 Derby runner-up, Empire Maker, blitzed to a 91/2-length win.
For all of those who have fallen in love with Bodemeister for that effort, at least as many are willing to toss him from their trifectas because of one ominous stat that goes against him, however. Any race and any sport can be statistically analyzed to death, but by not having raced as a 2-year-old, the talented colt is battling serious Derby history. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a colt won the race without having started at two.
“It’s a concern, but you don’t fear it until you face it,” Baffert said. “As for being the one to beat, 80% of the horses we run are favourites so that doesn’t bother me.”
And how does he plan to handle the thrill of the most exciting two minutes in sports?
“When you’ve been in all the big dances, you can handle it,” Baffert said. “I hope I have a chance for my heart rate to go up when they turn for home.”
And if he gets there first, the Derby roses will never have smelled so sweet.
With a win on Saturday with either Bodemeister or Liaison, Bob Baffert would move into second-place on the career list of trainer victories in the storied race:
1. Ben Jones, 6
Training for powerful Calumet Farms, he won the Derby four times in the 1940s alone.
2. Henry Thompson, 4
He won his Derbys in the 1920s and ‘30s and twice had the first- and second-place finishers.
2. D. Wayne Lukas, 4
Will have his 44th Derby horse on Saturday with Optimizer. Most recent win was Charismatic in 1999.
4. Bob Baffert, 3
All three Derby winners also won the Preakness but were denied the Triple Crown at the Belmont.
5. James Fitsimmons, 3
“Sunny Jim” won all of his in the 1930s.
5. Max Hirsch, 3
The best of his trio was 1946 Triple Crown winner, Assault.