ELMONT, N.Y. — It is the time of year that 13-year-old Bode Baffert finds so hilarious, when strangers recognize his father in crowded airports or restaurants but rarely get his name right.
“Lukas?” people sometimes guess, mistaking Bob Baffert for his venerable rival, fellow National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who bears zero resemblance and, at 82, is 17 years older.
“The horse guy!” others blurt out.
In the world of thoroughbred racing, only one syllable is required.
“You say ‘Bob’ in the racing industry, and there’s only one Bob,” notes Joe Harper, CEO of Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and a longtime family friend. “With the blue blazer, yellow tie and white hair walking his horse to the barn for the Derby, that is recognized around the world.”
Baffert’s profile stands to rise higher in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, when his unbeaten chestnut colt, Justify, attempts to become the 13th horse to win the Triple Crown.
In one sense, there is little more for Baffert to achieve. Inducted into the sport’s Hall of Fame in 2009, he reached the pinnacle of racing in 2015, snapping the sport’s 37-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah.
He has also tied Lukas’s record of 14 wins in Triple Crown races (five Kentucky Derbies, seven Preaknesses and two Belmonts) and hauled in four Eclipse Awards as the season’s top trainer, three Breeders’ Cup Classics and more than $276 million in career earnings.
But Baffert would join a more exclusive club Saturday with a second Triple Crown, taking his place alongside the late James Fitzsimmons (Gallant Fox in 1930; Omaha in 1935) as the only two men to have achieved the feat twice.
Saturday will mark the fifth time Baffert has arrived at Belmont Park with a shot at the Triple Crown. And he pronounced everything right with the world — at least, the small, dirt corner of it he controls — after watching his massive, muscular colt gallop on the dry track Friday morning.
“This is what a trainer hopes to see the day before his horse runs,” said Baffert, who was joined by representatives of the four-way corporate partnership that owns Justify, whose record is 5-0 since making his debut as a late-developing 3-year-old on Feb. 18. “Coming off the track, he was just full of himself. He just seems like he’s still improving, and so he looks like he is ready to run.”
Those who’ve followed Baffert’s career say multiple factors account for his success.
For starters, he surrounds himself with top people who share his attention to detail, noted Jay Hovdey, executive columnist for Daily Racing Form who has known Baffert for years.
That detail was on display Friday morning, as Baffert turned his binoculars skyward at a news helicopter whirring over Belmont Park, presumably to capture footage of Justify’s session. He explained later how relieved he was to have put earplugs in the colt’s ears before the session; the strange sound could have spooked the horse.
He also has a keen eye for a horse’s potential — as well as potential problems, able to “listen” to the athlete by watching. “He can diagnose a physical problem with the horse before it has done lasting damage or damage to a career,” Hovdey said. “He knows when to stop.”
Lukas hails him as “an excellent horseman” who not only attracts top clients and horses but knows how to develop them. Asked about Baffert’s prospects of breaking their shared record of Triple Crown race wins, Lukas said, “He’s the heir apparent to all these records. . . . I mean, Bob is going to roll right past.”
Harper, who got to know Baffert’s late parents and their seven children decades ago, offered this analysis: “Bob is kind of like a big old pan of paella. There’s probably 20 things in there that make it really good. But I think it starts with Bob’s growing up and his parents, who I adored. They were salt-of-the-earth ranchers — ‘their word is their bond’ type of people.”
Nogales, Ariz., was a small town with a line down its center separating it from Nogales, Mexico, which had 10 times the population, when Bill and Ellie Baffert reared their close-knit family on a small chicken and cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere. It took a nearly 100-foot antenna planted in the middle of a field to get three channels on the family TV, and a cow would knock the antenna down about once a month.
After graduating from Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program, Bob Baffert moved to California and shifted his focus from quarter horses to thoroughbreds. He quickly established that he had as much “horse sense” as old-line trainers even if his approach — his happy-go-lucky attitude, irreverent sense of humor and contemporary allusions — set him apart.
When Baffert arrived at Churchill Downs with his first Kentucky Derby horse, Cavonnier, and got a glimpse of the favored Unbridled Song, the 2-year-old champion of the previous year, he cracked: “I think we’re going to need a bigger boat!”
More recently, Baffert has peppered his horse-racing commentary with references to Austin Powers movies or the Golden State Warriors.
Explained Hovdey, “My operational take on his success: He took his job very seriously and didn’t take himself seriously at all.”
Today, Baffert moves in a world of billionaires and sheikhs, far removed from Nogales. But he has lost none of his fluency with the sport’s grooms and jockeys, nor the ability to laugh at himself and not let racing’s spoils go to his head.
After suffering a heart attack in Dubai in 2012, Baffert sent texts and a video to friends and family that showed Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of the emirate, who had arranged for his health care, visiting him in his hospital room during his recovery. “This is when you know you’re being well taken care of,” Baffert said on the video, both chagrined and delighted by the attention.
But racing has a way of humbling even the best horses and most decorated trainers.
If Baffert feels pressure on the eve of his fifth shot at a Triple Crown, there is no sign.
“It can be done,” Baffert said Friday. “It’s doable, but he still has to do it. And we’re going to have to have racing luck. If he’s really as great of a horse as we think he is, he can do it.”