Baffert back at Kentucky Derby

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Bob Baffert had so much success in his early years at the Kentucky Derby he thought it would go on forever. Three wins in six years will do that. Then karma caught up and sent him into a humbling slide. He’s hoping to change his luck Saturday, when he saddles Pioneerof the Nile, the early co-second choice in the morning line. The colt is Baffert’s first serious contender since he won his third Derby in 2002. ‘He has the fight in him,’ he said. For the first time in a while, so does Baffert. ‘I’ve been obsessed with the Derby, but how can you not be? Any trainer that doesn’t want to win the Derby needs to take another job,’ he said. Baffert nearly won America’s most famous horse race in his first try in 1996. Cavonnier lost by a nose to Grindstone and trainer D. Wayne Lukas, igniting a rivalry between the veteran and the brash newcomer. ‘There was a time we just couldn’t stand each other,’ Baffert said. ‘He raised the bar and I was trying to get to it.’ It didn’t take long. Baffert won the following year with Silver Charm and repeated in 1998 with Real Quiet. ‘I’ve spoiled myself,’ he said. ‘It was getting to the point where I thought, ‘Oh, this is easy.” Then the Derby gods intervened. Baffert kept finding a way to show up on the first Saturday in May, failing each time to get anywhere near the winner’s circle. ‘I’ve been in the paddock and saddled horses and just felt nothing,’ he said. ‘I told my wife Jill, ‘I’m not going to bring a horse up here if I feel like I don’t have a chance.’ It’s just not fun for me.’ Baffert hit rock bottom in 2001 after Point Given, sent off as the 9-5 favorite, was second turning for home and wound up fifth. His other horse, Congaree, led with a quarter-mile to go only to get beaten by four lengths. In 2002, he picked up War Emblem three weeks before the Derby and the colt scored a gate-to-wire victory, finally returning Baffert to a familiar spot and the joy of hoisting that gold cup. ‘Every time you win one, it’s like winning your first,’ he said. ‘Your whole life passes in front of you.’ Small wonder, then, that Louisville feels like home to the Southern California-based trainer. He met Jill, his second wife, at Churchill Downs and now their 4-year-old son, Bode, returns with them. ‘This town has been so great to me,’ he said. ‘It’s very emotional. When you come here with a good horse, you feel like maybe I can feel that again. You can’t describe the feeling of watching your horse coming down the middle of the stretch.’ Earlier this week, Baffert visited the Derby Museum and punched up the video of Silver Charm’s victory in 1997. The colt went on to win the Preakness, but lost his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont. ‘I started tearing up because it brings back all those memories, when I came back here with Bob Lewis,’ he said, referring to the colt’s late owner. ‘I think of him and everybody I came with.’ Baffert’s drive sustained him when the lean times hit. Three of his richest clients died, cutting off his flow of good horses and money to spend at the sales. He is back at the Derby this year with his first starter since 2006, when he ran three horses and none finished better than ninth. If Pioneerof the Nile wins yesterday, Baffert would tie fellow Hall of Famer Lukas and H.J. ‘Dick’ Thompson for second-most Derby victories at four. Lukas will again try to stop him, this time with long shot Flying Private. ‘It would be very selfish for me to resent him winning one when I know what it takes to get here,’ Lukas said. Their days of zinging each other publicly have passed, although the 73-year-old master is quick to note that his 13 Triple Crown victories are well ahead of Baffert’s eight. Now 56, Baffert is showcasing a new, lower-key demeanor, prompted by his wife’s urging to be grateful and behave himself. ‘I’ve learned to be competitive in a quieter manner,’ he said. ‘No more woofing.’ If he makes the mind-blurring trip from the box seats to the winner’s circle, Baffert said his thoughts will be of everyone who helped him get there, including his aging parents watching on television back in Nogales, Ariz. ‘I’ve won all these major races, but the Derby is totally different because it’s so emotional,’ he said. ‘It’s almost like a report card of life, that maybe you did something good.’ He desperately wants to make the grade again.