Ten years ago near twilight on the first Saturday in May, Bob Baffert stood on the red bricks outside the Churchill Downs paddock in complete shock.
It was an unusual place to see a Kentucky Derby trainer an hour after the big race was run, but the Derby rookie was disoriented and overwhelmed. He'd just lost what might have been the closest run for the roses ever when his California-bred gelding, Cavonnier, was overhauled by inches at the wire by Grindstone.
Bob Baffert's white hair and quick quips have long made him a media favorite.
The final furlong had been a 12-second dream sequence: Baffert seeing his horse take the lead, believing he was going to win the race of his life, feeling a primal surge of emotion -- and then watching Grindstone loom alongside Cavonnier in the final jump. While 142,668 fans held their breath and their mutuel tickets, the racing stewards pored over the photo finish for long, tense minutes. Then they announced the result that sent Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas to the winner's circle for the second straight year and no-namer Bob Baffert to the other side of the grandstand, out where the common folks were filtering out.
Standing there with his suit coat slung over one shoulder and his wife, Sherry, by his side, wisecrackin' Bob was at a rare loss for words.
He didn't know that he'd just been through two minutes that would alter him forever.
"I thought I'd never be back," Baffert said this week. "I thought I blew my shot."
A decade later, Bob Baffert is a three-time Kentucky Derby winner and is fully armed for a fourth, sending Point Determined, Bob and John, and Sinister Minister (all 12-1 in the morning line) to post Saturday. If he brings home the roses, he'll be only the fourth trainer to win four Derbies, and just the second to win four in a 10-year span.
During this decade of Derbies, Baffert has changed lives, changed wives, changed tax brackets and changed the august race that he never thought he'd compete in again. He became a father for the fifth time, at age 51, after divorcing Sherry and marrying Jill Moss, a former Louisville TV morning anchor about 25 years younger. (He also became a scoundrel in some quarters for those very same reasons.) He went from largely anonymous to the most recognized, most cussed and most discussed man in a sport short on leading men. He forced a largely humorless industry to laugh along with -- or at least tolerate -- his terminal silliness. He lost his humility, then had it forcibly returned to him by his friends, family and the fickle fortunes of the sport.
The only constants have been the snarky humor, the silver hair and the fact that Bob Baffert can train the hell out of a thoroughbred.
"The Derby does a lot of different things to you," said longtime Baffert friend Mike Pegram, who owned Baffert's 1998 Derby winner, Real Quiet. "The first one he was like a bug-eyed boy at Christmas. After he won the third one with War Emblem [in 2002], I think he was ready to tell Churchill how to run the whole place.
"Now I think he's back to doing what he wants to do, which is train horses. I think the race means more to him now than it ever has. He's come back full circle."
The Toughest Beat
Ten years after Cavonnier, Baffert is driving a comp Ford Expedition arranged by his Louisville PR man, Larry Bisig, through the infield tunnel at Churchill Downs. He goes under the grandstand and parks about 100 feet from where he stood on the red bricks a decade earlier, a beaten man. A different man.
Today he's taking the co-owner of Sinister Minister, Bernie Schiappa, over to pick up his Derby tickets. Schiappa is a streetwise Las Vegas automobile dealer, but the first-time Derby player sounds like a naïf as he gazes at the endless tents and booths dotting the infield.
"Holy s---!" Schiappa exclaims. "Look at this!"
Baffert knows what Schiappa is feeling. The old quarter-horse rider and trainer, a native of Nogales, Ariz., hard by the Mexican border, remembers that first-Derby awe that accompanies a bigger-than-life event.
Inside the corporate offices, Schiappa accepts a fat envelope of tickets and runs his credit card for several thousand dollars. Baffert does the same, paying for 28 box seats and eight walk-around tickets for his people.
Even with six brothers and sisters, two parents and four kids, Baffert wouldn't have had an entourage that size 10 years ago. Success and popularity are forever entwined.
"Everyone," said his oldest brother, Bill, "wants to be around the man with the white hair."
After picking up the tickets, Baffert and Schiappa walk the halls looking at the color photos of Derby winners. There is one missing. Ironically, it's the 1997 winner -- Silver Charm, Baffert's first Derby winner and still probably his all-time favorite horse.
The '96 picture is there, though. Grindstone, in the winner's circle.
Ask Baffert if it's difficult to look at that picture and he ignores the question. But later on, back in the Expedition, the man who has agonized through four near-miss Triple Crowns -- including a head-bob, photo-finish Belmont loss with Real Quiet in '98 -- will tell you how much it hurt.
"That still goes down as the toughest beat," Baffert says. "The Triple Crown was a tough beat, but by the time you get to the last leg of the Triple Crown, you just want it to be over. That ['96 Derby] was the toughest."
It was that toughest of all beats that turned Bob Baffert into a genuine Kentucky Derby obsessive.
Craving Derby Glory
During that 12-second dream sequence that was wiped out at the wire, Baffert got just enough of a contact buzz from Kentucky Derby glory to crave it again. Unlike hundreds of other trainers in the 132-year history of America's greatest race, his chance to return appeared the very next year.
Bob Baffert has his eye on Sort It Out in preparation for the Kentucky Derby.
"At the Santa Anita Derby, Silver Charm ran second," Bill Baffert said. "At the quarter pole it looked like he was going to get beat big by Free House, but he came back and dug in there. Bobby was elated. He was going to get his opportunity to go back. He said, 'We're going back to the Big Dance.' "
Baffert didn't just go back to the Big Dance, he won the thing. Then won the Preakness, creating Triple Crown buzz and becoming a national curiosity -- the funny guy with the white hair and the sunglasses.
In the Belmont, Silver Charm looked like he would become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978, only to be passed in deep stretch by Touch Gold. Tough beat, but not the toughest.
That run made Baffert big. What he did the next year made him the leading man in the sport. He again won the first two legs of the Crown with a bargain-basement, $17,000 horse, Real Quiet. His loss in the Belmont to Victory Gallop remains the slimmest margin by which anyone ever missed winning the Triple Crown.
But it wasn't the toughest beat.
By 1999, Baffert appeared to have dwarfed California training rival Lukas, who previously had owned the game. He showed up in Louisville with a four-horse armada: fillies Silverbulletday and Excellent Meeting and colts Prime Timber and General Challenge. He sent Silverbulletday out to dominate the Kentucky Oaks and let the other three contest the Derby, figuring one would win.
They finished fourth, fifth and 10th, while Lukas came out of the clouds to win with 31-1 shot Charismatic. It was Bob's first true taste of Derby humility.
It was not his last.
In 2000 he finished eighth with Captain Steve. Then he came back loaded again in 2001 with Congaree and the most talented horse he's ever trained, Point Given.
By this point, five years of an altered lifestyle had an impact. His marriage was unraveling and he was spending his time with Moss, whom he met years before when her morning show was broadcasting live during Derby week from the Churchill backside. When the two were photographed on Derby Day 2001 lying like fashion models on the hood of Baffert's loaned Jaguar outside his barn, his friends groaned and his critics unloaded.
And when Point Given was cooked by a hot pace and Congaree did all he could to hang on and finish third, Baffert took a spoonful of adversity he wasn't prepared to digest. He was overconfident in his training and Derby race strategy for Point Given. Winning the Preakness and Belmont in dominating fashion with that colt only reinforced the one that got away.
"I was so armed that year," Baffert said. "That's when I really had to appreciate how tough that race is to win."
Fitting the capricious nature of the Derby gods, Baffert stunningly won the 2002 Derby with 21-1 shot War Emblem -- a hired gun that had just entered his barn a few weeks earlier. That victory reinforced Baffert's reputation as a Derby savant and brilliant conditioner.
"They should have put his ass in jail that year for stealing it," Pegram said. "That's Bob Baffert the horseman."
"He knows how to win this race," Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said. "You can never discount him. Believe me, I know: He tried his best to get me to ride War Emblem and I wouldn't do it. You obviously have to have the horse, but he does a lot with them."
That victory also reinforced his ego. Baffert again transcended the racing niche and appealed to the mainstream sporting culture like few other horsemen ever have. The popularity became intoxicating.
"When you're getting a lot of press, a lot of ink, you start believing your own crap. You start reading what you say and think you look smart. Sometimes you need to be knocked down a notch." Bob Baffert
"When you're getting a lot of press, a lot of ink, you start believing your own crap," he admitted. "You start reading what you say and think you look smart. Sometimes you need to be knocked down a notch."
The media was ready and willing after War Emblem won the Preakness and came to the Belmont. The horse was notably unloved by the sporting public -- in part because of his Saudi Arabian ownership in post-9/11 New York, in part because Baffert had become a bloated target.
After War Emblem stumbled badly leaving the gate in the Belmont, costing him any chance to win, several turf writers reveled in Baffert's comeuppance.
"I let it [the media criticism] get to me a little bit," he admitted. "I thought I was a victim because guys were taking shots at me."
Baffert soon found out that being criticized is not as bad as being ignored come Derby time. The next three years -- 14th, no entry, 17th -- taught him that.
"He had a couple years where he didn't have a chance," Pegram said. "Now he realizes what this race can mean."
Now, with winners of two major Derby prep races (Sinister Minister in the Blue Grass and Bob and John in the Wood Memorial) and a third horse that might actually be his best hope (Point Determined), a new man shoots for No. 4.
Inspired By Mom and Dad
The man with the white hair is in the clocker's stand on a sun-kissed Kentucky morning, waiting to watch Sinister Minister jog past on the Churchill strip. Bode Baffert, age 16 months and named for the Olympic skiier who spent Thursday with Baffert around the barn, is far more interested in twisting the knob on his dad's walkie-talkie than watching the horses.
"Bodeee," Baffert croons into his son's ear. "BodeBodeBodeBodeBodeBodeBode."
This, sports fans, is a different Bob Baffert.
"One of the things that has really grounded Bob is this new baby," Pegram said.
There is less of a disconnect for Baffert now between his work and his family. Sherry never cared for the race track, and his four older kids will not be at the Derby. Jill, meanwhile, is a near-constant barn presence, having abandoned her dreams of becoming the next Katie Couric to become the next Mrs. Bob Baffert. And if Jill is around, so is Bode, with his blue suede Pumas and mom's brown eyes.
In years past, Baffert would spend as much as 10 weeks in Louisville during the Triple Crown campaign. This time, in the lead-up to the Derby, he's been here for just a few days, keeping two of his three horses back in California until this week. That coincides with more family time, part of Jill and Bode's positive pull.
As much as Baffert is smitten by his youngest son, he's trying to win this one for his dad, Bill, and mom, Ellie. In their 80s, they'll watch the race back home on the ranch in Nogales, Ariz.
"They live by the television watching the races," Bob said. "Every time I win a big race it kind of keeps them going."
Ten years ago he never thought he'd get back here, to the biggest race. A lot of things have changed since then -- Bob Baffert especially.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.