Trainer Bob Baffert will be attempting to win his second Triple Crown in three years when Justify runs in the Belmont Stakes in a little under two weeks.
To say that I admire Baffert is an understatement. About 10 years ago, I sent a story back from Kentucky that was very favorable of the silver-haired trainer. When I got back to Florida, an elderly lady, who was an editor and loves horses, approached me. She said she thought I didn’t like Baffert. I had to explain that my opinion of the trainer had changed.
When Baffert came on the thoroughbred scene, he came from a quarter horse background. D. Wayne Lukas had been successful in doing the switch from quarter horses to thoroughbreds, so now we had two trainers who had successfully made the switch.
It is no secret that thoroughbred trainers, especially veteran Kentucky hard boots, didn’t take too kindly to the quarter horse trainers having the audacity to move into their territory.
I had been told over and over of Baffert’s arrogance and the extreme confidence he exuded. I had watched him on television and the more I saw him, the more I disliked him.
I also read a book about his beginnings and his career, etc., and it didn’t do anything to change my opinion of Baffert.
The trainer’s charming personality took another hit when he met a Louisville television personality named Natalie Moss. Everybody now knows Natalie as Jill.
The thoroughbred establishment looked down even more on the trainer when he was seen in the company of the much younger news reporter. After all, he was married with four children.
I heard all of the rumors about how egotistical Baffert was, and now with a young blonde on his arm, he became even more hated among the old Kentucky hard boots.
I had seen him on the backside and his banter with his group made me think the rumors were true.
But I had made one big mistake. I had not met the man.
When I got to know Baffert, I saw what a caring man he was. He was caring for his horses and his family. That’s what he lived for.
Phil Thomas is a Louisville trainer about my age. I first met Thomas when he was the hippie light man for a rock group called The Rugbys, a group that crashed the Billboard top 20.
Thomas went off to college at the University of Kentucky and went to work at Spendthrift Farms in Lexington. That was when Spendthrift was owned by Leslie Combs II and his family. It was major league.
Even though Thomas was a hippie at heart and dress, he was a very astute horseman. He was sharp.
When Baffert came to the Kentucky Derby, he was assigned stalls in the same barn as Thomas. They became very close friends, kind of like the odd couple.
These were two very smart horsemen. Thomas told me that Baffert was an OK kind of guy and, in fact, was extremely benevolent and friendly. When Baffert is on the backside in Louisville, he and Thomas are not far apart.
Recently, a publication asked horsemen for comments on the death of the stall superintendent at Churchill Downs.
“I liked Mike, He gave me the best barn on the back side,” the tribute said. “Right behind Phil Thomas.”
A few other things happened that made Baffert mellow out. First, there was getting older and more mature. Then, his marriage to Jill in 2002 was a big factor in his life. For a marriage that could have gone awry because of all of the circumstances, they seem to be made for each other and very much in love. It’s like Jill keeps Bob under control – but not too restrained.
What happened in 2004 seems to be the biggest change in Bob’s life. The Baffert’s son Bode came along. He is named after American skier Bode Miller. Bode is the pride and joy of both Bob and Jill. And although he says he wants to be a weatherman, he loves the horses.
I have watched him grow from being in Jill’s arms watching the horses work out to riding his dad’s shoulder so he could see to a nice and polite young man who is always with the horses.
Bob has credited Bode with keeping him up-to-date on the world. He’s kept Bob young by letting him know what’s happening.
Then, in 2012, the Bafferts had a major scare when Bob had a heart attack while in Dubai to run a horse in the Dubai World Cup. It could have been a widow-maker, but Jill’s fast action and a call to Dubai’s leader, Shiekh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, helped pull Baffert through.
With the help of the best doctors Maktoum could get together, Baffert overcame three stents in two blocked arteries. One was blocked 100 percent, the other 90 percent.
Trainer Bob Baffert holds up the trophy after Justify won the Preakness Stakes earlier this month.
Baffert said the ordeal proved to him that he was not invincible and that he was going to enjoy life. He has cut back slightly on the hours he spends at the track and now he may have 100 horses instead of 150. Baffert seems very happy and it carries over to his horses.
Baffert is known for having happy horses and happy horses run well. I have watched Lookin At Lucky, Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharoah and many other Baffert horses. While standing at the chute waiting to work out, they are not hesitant to go to work. They are not washed out. They stand there with their ears pricked and are checking out their surroundings.
They seem to pose for every camera like they know they are important and that is what they are supposed to do. They act as if they know they are very special.
Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s assistant, is in charge of Justify as he prepares for the Belmont Stakes. He told the media that his job is just to keep Justify happy.
Bob Baffert, you taught me a lesson. When I didn’t know you, I heard hearsay and believed it. Now I know to wait until you get to know someone before you judge them.
Not only is Baffert probably the best trainer in the world, he is now a very nice guy. I will be pulling for Justify with all my strength June 9, whereas over 20 years ago, I was pulling against anything that Baffert put on the track.