There is always a mystique about great trainers, who seem to possess the ability to look at a horse and see things that other people don’t see. Journalist Bill Nack, in a profile of Baffert for GQ magazine, wrote: “No one . . . has more manifest gifts as a horse whisperer. . . . Baffert has emerged as a white-maned wizard of the turf [with a] singular feel for horses and an instinct for divining how to make them run long, hard and fast.”
The key to Baffert’s success may not be some mysterious, ineffable gift. The white-maned wizard might have been considered a conventional trainer if he lived in the era when members of his profession regularly trained their horses fast and raced them hard. But in the last quarter-century, as thoroughbreds have evidently become less robust, American horsemen train thoroughbreds more gently and prefer to give them as much as a month or two to recuperate between races. Running horses who are “fresh” is now the orthodoxy of the business.
Such an approach is alien to Baffert’s background. He spent his formative years at quarter-horse tracks in Arizona, where the object of training is to get a horse to deliver an explosion of raw speed. Nobody does this with a gentle touch. When Baffert made his transition to the thoroughbred sport, he did so in California, where the fast-paced races over hard, speed-favoring tracks forced trainers to drill horses hard so they could be competitive.
As the fashion in training techniques changed, men such as Todd Pletcher and the late Bobby Frankel achieved great success by campaigning their horses sparingly, but Baffert remained committed to his methods. He worked youngsters hard and fast before they ever ran, and was unapologetic about it: “If you train them fast, in the long run they are going to stay sounder.” He did watch closely for any clues that the tough regimen might be having adverse consequences. Clocker Bruno De Julio of GradeOneRacing.com, who has observed Baffert’s work for years, said, “If a horse develops a pimple, he doesn’t let it get worse. He gives them time off.”
Baffert rejects the theory that has been a cornerstone of Pletcher’s and Frankel’s approach, that if a horse runs too fast he will “bounce” — i.e., regress — if he doesn’t have plenty of rest before his next start. In a horse’s final prep race before the Kentucky Derby, Baffert wants a maximum effort. Silver Charm got involved in a gut-wrenching speed duel in the 1997 Santa Anita Derby and came back to win the Derby brilliantly. All three of Baffert’s Derby winners captured the Preakness two weeks later. They didn’t bounce. Baffert said, “A lot of trainers feel, ‘I can’t do this or that because he’s going to bounce,’ and so they baby them along.”