A few years ago I caught up with Bob Baffert and wrote an article about him simply called “Nobody Does it Better.” There was no creativity involved in the titling of that article. It was true then and a few short years later not much has changed, unless you count another Triple Crown to go with American Pharoah’s. Bob was able to repeat the ever elusive feat with Justify. Winning another Triple Crown wasn’t enough however. Bob did it with an undefeated horse who also knocked off that whole Apollo curse thing about not being able to win the Kentucky Derby with a horse who did not run at two.
With Breeders’ Cup 2019 less than a month away, and so much going on in the Sport of Kings, we checked in with Bob again to talk about the state of horse racing and some of his Breeders’ Cup contenders.
When you think about it, most of Bob Baffert’s major successes have come in races like the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Dubai World Cup, Pegasus World Cup, and Breeders’ Cup races including the Breeders’ Cup Classic. These are races run under some of the strictest rules in the sport, worldwide, which creates the levelest of playing fields. This speaks to Bob’s horsemanship. It also came as no surprise to me when Bob told me he supports new protocols in the sport to minimize injuries and make sure our horses are cared for as best as can possibly be done, not just in his barn but all barns.
After Del Mar they replaced the Santa Anita surface. What are the differences you have noticed and how would you describe the current Santa Anita dirt surface?
The track is a lot deeper than it used to be. It is heavier. It’s a deep heavy racetrack. You still see some fast times but you also see more horses struggle over it and come back tired.
How do you feel the track plays, and will play come Breeders’ Cup?
I think it will be ok, fair, but some horses just won’t take to it. That is true of any racetrack. You’ll see some horses struggle with it and get tired.
Considering that, do you think the Santa Anita based horses have an advantage, and do you think it will be a benefit to ship in early if you are coming in from out of town?
Not really. These are all good horses coming in. Good horses overcome things like that. They run through them. With good horses you don’t really have to worry about that. It’s just if they like the surface or not. There will be some horses who just don’t like it, and coming in early or training over it won’t change that. The good horses though, they can overcome a lot.
Having the kind of success you have, not only does it put somewhat of a target on your back, it also puts you in sort of an ambassador role for the sport like it or not. Is that difficult, and how do you handle it?
It’s always difficult when a microphone is put in your face after something happens and people ask Bob what do you think about that, Bob what do you think about this? I call it outside noise. I ignore it. The problem is we have no organized response as an industry. We sort of run every man for himself with all the tracks and states. I have long been in favor of some sort of commissioner or governing body. It will probably never happen as we can’t agree on a lot of things, but it would be beneficial to have an organized response and plan for when things happen. I also see and point out that a lot of progress is being made. We are making changes, and will make more that are showing a difference and improvement. The changes here have made a difference for the better. I think and hope we’ll see more of it and support it at more tracks. Nobody wants to see anything bad happen at the track. This is a grand sport, and the way it showcases on the big days is a great event. It is great sportsmanship, beautiful horses competing, our jockeys are fantastic athletes. It really is beautiful. We need to make it as safe as possible and I think we are making progress.
Bob Baffert: “I see a difference.”
You have a barn full of stars, and potential stars. When it comes to selecting riders for all those horses be it for a debut, major race, or even changing jockeys, what do you look for? Who’s hot, past success, who fits a horse?
Bob Baffert: “I wanted to be a star jockey you know, I never wanted to be a trainer.”
I started training after I saw it wasn’t going to work out as a jockey. I like to work with a team of riders. I like young riders who are learning and improving and I like to help them and their careers. It is great to see them develop and improve and be a part of that. You always try and get a rider who you feel suits your horse. Young riders you can teach a lot also. You put these young riders on live horses and watch them go out there and get better.
Bob Baffert: “Horses make trainers. Trainers make jockeys.”
Looking at some of your Breeders’ Cup contenders, starting with McKinzie in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, did you think he got enough out of the Awesome Again, and more importantly do you think he goes forward off the race and is set for a peak effort?
I think so, yes. He came out of it really well. The winner ran a big race. He took back, came again, got around well. He’s doing really good right now. He worked this morning and was cruising. Worked very good, I’m real happy with him.
Do you feel the mile and a quarter might be pushing his limit distance-wise ?
No, I have never worried about that or thought that. Other people have, not me.
Eight Rings ran big the other day. He also went wire to wire. Do you think he can go forward, and does he need to be on the lead at this point or can he sit and relax?
Well, Johnny really focused him. That was key. His last race had been a disaster and I didn’t want that to happen again. I had him ready. Last time he ducked out, just terrible, so Johnny just put him right in the race like we wanted to. I wanted to make sure we didn’t have another bad race so he was ready. These are gonna be tougher horses next time. He will have to improve. But no, I don’t think he has to be on the lead. That was just how it played out the other day and I think it was good for him.
Bob Baffert: “Sometimes I’ll look up and see I’m the favorite, usually we are, sometimes I see I’m the favorite and know I’m not running the best horse. Sometimes I see I’m the favorite and know I am running the best horse.”
Let’s talk a little about Improbable. You are cutting him back to a mile.
Yes, the mile looked like a good spot to cut him back. He seems to like it in California better. He has gate issues. He jumps up and that costs him. His break is so important. I think if he can get away good, a mile here in California is the right spot for him.
Bast looked to have a real tough race last time. Do you prefer going into a big race off a tough fight like Bast had, or an easy win like Eight Rings had? Do you think Bast could regress off an effort like that or move forward?
Bob Baffert: “Bast needed a fight.”
Bast really needed a race like that. She came out of the race really good. It all depends on the horse. She needed that kind of race. Eight Rings, because of his disaster in his last race, needed his. It is whatever the horse needs to be ready, that can be different with different horses. Both these horses got what they needed. Eight Rings was more ready than Bast was. I wanted her to have to fight for it.
When you talk horses with Bob Baffert one thing that quickly becomes very clear is he is in tune with every horse in his barn, and all their individual nuances and idiosyncrasies. You can ask him anything about any horse and the info is right there at the forefront of his mind. People often ask when you hire a big name trainer with a lot of good horses, are you getting that trainer or an assistant. First, Bob has an exceptional staff starting with Jim Barnes all the way down the line and he is quick to credit them. That said, if he is your trainer, then he is your trainer. That goes for the entire shed-row.
Gun to your head, you have to name the one horse you’d want to be remembered for, just one, and why.
American Pharoah. He just had that way about him, and it had been 37 years, and so many great horses fell short and he did it. It was electric that day. It was intense. Such a long wait. Justify was as talented. He was a beautiful horse. He was able to win the Triple Crown undefeated and break the Apollo curse. Arrogate was great also. His Travers was a great race and those were some very good horses behind him. His Dubai World Cup, beating Gun Runner also a great race.
Bob Baffert: “I keep saying I’ll never have another horse like that and then another one comes along.”
Coincidence? No way, coincidences are for romance novels.