Bob Baffert will talk to almost anyone about almost anything.
Want to shut him up though? Ask him about history, specifically his standing in it and the records he’s on the cusp of breaking with his latest thoroughbred superstar, Justify.
If Justify wins the Preakness on Saturday — something each of Baffert’s four previous Kentucky Derby winners have done — he will move his trainer out of a tie with D. Wayne Lukas and into a tie with 19th century horseman R. Wyndham Walden for the all-time record of seven wins in the race. A win would also be Baffert’s 14th in a Triple Crown race and tie him with Lukas at the top of that list.
He wants to acknowledge exactly none of this.
“I never think about breaking records or anything like that,” he said last week. “We live in the moment. I have a little Bill Belichick in me. It’s on to Baltimore.”
The 82-year-old Lukas will try to prevent Baffert’s ascent by saddling two Preakness contenders of his own, Bravazo and Sporting Chance. It’s fitting given that Lukas was the pinnacle to which Baffert aspired when he broke into thoroughbred training in the 1990s.
Their relationship was perceived as prickly in those years. Lukas once lamented to the late writer William Nack that Baffert arrived at the barn hours later than the other trainers and still somehow whipped them. “How do you figure it?” he groused.
But when Baffert went into the Hall of Fame in 2009, he asked that Lukas induct him. The two men have grown close, sharing tales of their respective starts in the quarter-horse world and affectionate jokes about their advancing years or about how Lukas rejected Baffert for a job coming out of high school.
Nowhere is Baffert’s reverence for the past more evident than when he talks about Lukas. “For me, Wayne is still up here,” he said, holding his hand above his head.
Lukas will hear none of it. He says Baffert clearly belongs on a short list of the greatest trainers in history because he’s put his mark on every facet of the sport.
“In this game, one of the things you find out quickly is who you can respect. That’s what bonds these relationships,” Lukas said. “I have the greatest respect for Bob Baffert. Yes, he has great clientele, but he knows what to do with them. He’s the heir apparent to all these records, and we really have developed a deep friendship.”
Baffert, 65, is the sport’s greatest enduring star, recognizable to even the most casual fan because of his trademark shock of white hair, which he’s had since he first stormed the Triple Crown stage 21 years ago.
He might grumble about the endless line of people who approach him at big races, asking for pictures or wishing to chat. But the truth is he embraces the role, standing outside his barn far longer than necessary to humor every request.
The joke among longtime racing writers is that you keep hanging around Baffert after the pack leaves because he recycles the same stories, but they get better and better.
When he won his first Derby and Preakness in 1997, with Silver Charm, turf scribes routinely described him as a breath of fresh air for a sport short on relatable characters. He had his wry routine down even then, when he was just a few years removed from training quarter horses, which he’d learned to love as a boy growing up on his family’s ranch in Nogales, Ariz.
More than two decades later, he’s still attracting eyes and ears to an industry that struggles for mainstream attention. Baffert will occasionally offer a window into why he’s so accommodating. It’s because he actually doesn’t take any of his success for granted.
Not after he went 13 years winning just one Triple Crown race (the 2010 Preakness with Lookin at Lucky). Not after he was felled by a heart attack in a Dubai hotel room six years ago.
Baffert often talks about the excruciating pressure he feels when he’s gifted with a horse as talented as Justify. He knows how fleeting such opportunities can be.
Even after American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run in 2015, he watched two potential Derby favorites, Mastery in 2017 and McKinzie this year, fall off the trail because of ill-timed leg injuries. The cruelty of the sport never diminishes, nor do owners’ expectations for big-race victories.
Baffert likes to say none of the top trainers are wizards. They’re all just guys waiting for a great horse and hoping to get him to the starting gate in one piece.
He doesn’t want to bask in his own history of success because he knows it guarantees nothing for tomorrow.
“The disappointments are right around the corner,” he said. “That’s why I never get ahead of myself anymore.”
When Justify thundered to victory over the mud at Churchill Downs, just 77 days after he entered the gate for his maiden start at Santa Anita, Baffert was more relieved than elated. He could’ve crowed about his audacious vision for bringing the colt so far, so fast. Instead, he talked of how he’d been ready to sneak out of the building if the wicked weather or the crash of 20 contenders had derailed the freakishly talented chestnut.
The next day brought yet another reminder of the sport’s inherent anxiety when the new Derby champion struggled to put weight on his left hind heel as he posed for glamour shots. The injury, which turned out to be a treatable bruise, sparked a brief furor on the internet. Baffert blamed himself for walking his horse out on uncomfortable gravel, just to service the press.
He generally looks forward to the Preakness as a relative respite during the five-week crucible of the Triple Crown series. It features the shortest week of preparation, the lowest-key environment and generally the thinnest field of the three races.
“We come here, we’re a little stressed out, but they just roll out the red carpet for everybody, and it means a lot,” he said.
Baffert has certainly thrived in Baltimore, winning the race with his first four Derby winners, with Point Given in 2001 and Lookin At Lucky in 2010. If he wins No. 7, he would tie a trainer from a very different time and place.
Walden, who packed his Preakness victories into a 13-year period between 1875 and 1888, was a man of rare, encompassing vision.
He established his Carroll County farm, Bollingbrook, in 1878 and over the next 27 years, built it into a 1,400-acre colossus with a covered training track, a school for jockeys, a blacksmith shop and a dormitory for reform-school children who doubled as stable boys. The dining room walls in the manor house featured portraits of his Preakness champions.
For all his grand ambitions, Walden was known as a modest, honorable character. When he died of pneumonia at age 61, a special train carried mourners from Baltimore to his funeral.
Baffert doesn’t go back that far, but he’s held the Preakness stage longer than most. He reflected this week on the first of his six victories, with Silver Charm.
“I really didn’t care if I won or not. I was just so excited about winning the Derby,” he said. “That’s the most excited I’ve ever been. For two weeks I was just floating around here.”
He thought Silver Charm had been out-nosed at the wire by Free House. But owner Bob Lewis told him no. They’d won by a head.
Baffert still visits the horse who started it all every time he goes back to Kentucky for the Derby.
“He’s still tough,” he said. “And I think he still recognizes me.”