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ALTHOUGH the event itself is still six weeks away, the Road to the Breeders’ Cup has long since begun in the States, where sometimes it feels that as soon as the Triple Crown is done and dusted every other half-decent race is regarded as some kind of trial for the two-day extravaganza at Santa Anita on November 1-2.
Whatever the time of year, though, one man can be guaranteed to be making the headlines. Bob Baffert is the man for all seasons, from the Pegasus World Cup in January via Dubai and the Triple Crown, Saratoga and Del Mar in the summer to the end-of-year championships.
Baffert may have had his share of disappointment at the Breeders’ Cup but the fact remains only D Wayne Lukas has saddled more winners, and nobody has earned more prize-money – notably via his Classic hat-trick with Bayern, American Pharoah and Arrogate from 2014-16.
Moreover, he remains one of the highest-profile names in the sport. “Bob Baffert qualifies as a rock star in the world of thoroughbred horse racing,” suggested a Los Angeles Times profile, “instantly recognisable by that hair and the dark sunglasses he wears, even on a cloudy morning.”
It is hard to disagree, even now that Baffert is in his mid-60s. He has seldom been out of the news in the nearly three decades since his major breakthrough with the surprise surging victory of $30,000 yearling Thirty Slews in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park in 1992. (This, incidentally, was the race that left a 56-year-old Lester Piggott in hospital with broken ribs and collarbone after the fall that claimed the life of Mr Brooks).
Recent weeks have been no different, with Baffertworld rocked as he was forced to issue a statement after a story in the New York Times – no obvious friend to horse racing for some time – claimed Justify had failed a drugs test prior to last year’s Triple Crown.
This was only a minor infraction for scopolamine, a substance that can occur naturally in jimsonweed, and had already been dismissed by the Californian authorities, but it still managed to spark another sizeable controversy Stateside, where they’ve been circling the wagons.
It also left a mark against latterday Baffert’s reputation as the affable elder statesman of US racing, far removed from the wisecracking upstart of earlier years when he moved into Thoroughbreds from Quarter Horse racing in the 1980s after moving to Los Alamitos in Southern California from his native Arizona, where he had grown up on a ranch in Nogales, where his family raised cattle and chickens.
Baffert’s appearance was distinctive indeed, a bit like a west-coast stetson-clad Andy Warhol, usually seen usually joking around with owner Mike Pegram, a founder member of what used to be called ‘Bobby Baffert’s Travelling Circus’.
A partner in Thirty Slews, Pegram made his money from McDonald’s franchises and Reno casino holdings. As well as several other Breeders’ Cup winners, he went on to own Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet and Dubai World Cup winner Captain Steve, named after a member of the Louisville constabulary who helped Pegram out when he got in a spot of bother after America’s most famous race.
Still one of Baffert’s main supporters, Pegram likes to try the odd risque name with his horses, which have included Isitingood and Dixie Norma’s, the latter so called purely because he wanted racecallers to refer to his ownership in commentaries. Think about it. Mike Pegram’s Dixie Norma’s? Not big and not clever.
Baffert himself could generally be relied upon for a witty one-liner as he held court with the racing media, yet beneath the facade (and not always beneath it) he could be an abrasive character who seemed to delight rubbing racing’s bluebloods up the wrong way with a volatile mixture of ego, iconoclasm and moodiness.
Doubtless there was also more than a little jealousy at his amazing exploits, but Baffert was not universally popular. No one, though, could deny his success, and without any question he was to have the last laugh.
Now 66, Baffert has trained five Kentucky Derby winners, among them the two most recent winners of the Triple Crown in American Pharoah and Justify. He has won three Dubai World Cups, including with Arrogate after the latter had won the inaugural edition of the Pegasus World Cup, then the world’s richest race. A four-time Eclipse Award winner as champion trainer, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the first time of asking in 2009.
In the process, Baffert has softened a little – noticeably so after he suffered a heart attack in Dubai in 2012. No longer does his grin seem accompanied by a chip on his shoulder; in some respects, he is now part of the establishment that once seemed to revile him. Well, not quite an establishment figure, perhaps, but certainly senior, almost venerable.
Baffert’s mature status was encapsulated when his old rival-turned-friend D Wayne Lukas – also an ultra-competitive outsider who came up from Quarter Horse racing – stood up at the press conference after American Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic win to thank Baffert for what he had done for the sport in ending the Triple Crown drought.
Lukas is not the force he was but Baffert continues unabashed, once again in pole position for the Classic. Game Winner won't be on the team after a setback but Improbable may yet stamp himself a credible contender by justifying favouritism in Saturday’s $1 million Pennsylvania Derby – won 12 months ago by his stablemate MCKINZIE, who is clear ante-post favourite for America’s most prestigious race.
The four-year-old son of Street Sense is named in memory of longtime Los Alamitos executive Brad McKinzie, a former University of Arizona contemporary who was instrumental in his move to California in the early 1980s and with whom the trainer enjoyed a decades-long friendship.
McKinzie died after battling cancer in August 2017; guess whose colours the horse named after him carries?
That’s right – old mucker Mike Pegram, who owns him in partnership with his Arizona buddies Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. The trio have clubbed together on any number of horses in the past, among them Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky and dual Breeders’ Cup winners Midnight Lute and Secret Circle.
Baffert is certainly making the right noises when it comes to McKinzie, last seen with a convincing victory at Saratoga in the Whitney, after which his trainer was lauding the colt as the best in the country.
Race replay: McKinzie wins the Whitney.
“I don’t want to jinx myself, but I can tell he trains like the really top horses I’ve had,” said Baffert after a recent workout, speaking to Horseracingnation. “He’s a slow-maturing horse, but I can tell. You can put him anywhere you want. He’s not one-dimensional.”
The burning question, though, is whether McKinzie, for all his undoubted talent, is vulnerable over a mile and a quarter. He has tried the distance twice, and twice he has been beaten, including an abject failure as favourite in last year’s Classic when he was cooked after trying to chase a fast pace and finished 12th.
Then in April the son of Street Sense was touched off by the vastly inferior Gift Box in the Santa Anita Handicap; that winner hasn’t done much for the form since, either.
McKinzie couldn't get past Gift Box in the Santa Anita Handicap.
The Whitney was a nine-furlong event, not run at a testing pace; McKinzie had enough speed to be considered an unlucky loser on his previous outing in the Met Mile. Indeed, such are the stamina doubts that some bookmakers are still quoting McKinzie as favourite for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile as well as the Classic.
McKinzie is due to have his final prep run next weekend in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, and he’ll probably win. But given that Grade 1 event is nine furlongs, it is unlikely we’ll be any the wiser about any potential stamina issues.
It cannot be certain McKinzie will last the course. Unlike his trainer.
BOB BAFFERT’S BREEDERS CUP CLASSIC HAT-TRICK
2014 Bayern (Martin Garcia) Santa Anita
A controversial race: watch gate seven as Bayern (in the stars-and-stripes silks) takes a left-hand turn and hampers the favourite Shared Belief before making all. Great finish, though, with the Jamie Osborne-trained Toast Of New York just held off in an absolute thriller and California Chrome a neck away in third.
2015 American Pharoah (Victor Espinoza) Keeneland
Not content with becoming the first Triple Crown winner for 37 years, American Pharoah seals the deal by completing the Grand Slam in straightforward fashion by 6 1/2 lengths.
2016 Arrogate (Mike Smith) Santa Anita
A race to remember as big-striding superstar Arrogate runs down odds-on favourite California Chrome with the third-placed horse nearly 11 lengths back.
BOB BAFFERT’S BREEDERS’ CUP WINNERS
Classic (3): Bayern (2014), American Pharoah (2015), Arrogate (2016)
Sprint (5): Thirty Slews (1992), Midnight Lute (2007, 2008), Secret Circle (2013), Drefong (2016)
Juvenile (4): Vindication (2002), Midshipman (2008), New Year's Day (2013), Game Winner (2018)
Juvenile Fillies (2): Silverbulletday (1998), Indian Blessing (2007)
Juvenile Sprint (1): Secret Circle (2011)
LEADING BREEDERS’ CUP TRAINERS
|Name||Wins||Runs||Strike Rate||Prize Money|
|D Wayne Lukas||20||167||11.98%||$22.7m,|
|Sir Michael Stoute||8||41||19.51%||$11.8m|