Baffert More Than Derby's White-Haired Man
LOUISVILLE, Ky., May 5, 2006 — -- 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."