The agony and ecstasy of Bob Baffert’s 2020 were encapsulated in 30 minutes at the Kentucky Derby.
His tumultuous ride began prerace, when one of the two contenders from his barn, Thousand Words, flipped over in the paddock and broke the wrist of top lieutenant Jimmy Barnes. Moments later, Baffert watched his one remaining entry, Authentic, run the race of his life to best heavy favorite Tiz the Law. Great, except the touchy colt then wheeled around sharply in the winner’s circle and flattened a surprised Baffert.
“A friend of mine sent me a text and said, ‘It looks like you went to hell and back in 30 minutes,’” the Hall of Fame trainer recalled with a gallows chuckle as he looked ahead to Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, for which he’ll saddle both Authentic and Thousand Words.
It’s been that kind of year for the most successful trainer in the history of the Triple Crown series. He started with a quartet of potential Derby contenders only to see the most determined of them, Nadal, retired because of a condylar fracture and the most brilliantly fast of them, Charlatan, knocked off the trail by an ankle injury. Baffert also faces a 15-day suspension, which he’s appealing, because two of his most talented horses, Charlatan and the filly Gamine, tested positive for elevated levels of the numbing agent lidocaine at May 2 races in Arkansas. Those test failures, which wiped out victories for both horses, followed a 2019 New York Times report that Baffert-trained Justify had tested positive for the anti-nausea drug scopolamine before he won the Triple Crown in 2018.
With his trademark white hair and sunglasses and his record of relentless success over the last quarter-century, Baffert is the face of his sport to casual fans. So it was startling to see his name in so many unwanted headlines. But he bounced back, training Authentic up from an unconvincing finish in the July 18 Haskell Stakes to a brilliant performance in the Sept. 5 Derby. On Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, Baffert will seek his record-breaking eighth Preakness victory.
As ever, no one questions his ability to prepare a horse for the biggest stage.
“I thought it was the best Triple Crown training job that Bob has ever done,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said. “He took a horse that appeared to be clearly distance-challenged in the Haskell and really, really cranked up his training between the Haskell and the Kentucky Derby. He walked that tight rope of how much is too much, and then he ran the best race of his career.”
At Pimlico this week, the 67-year-old Baffert has seemed cool as ever, lamenting the loss of big-event atmosphere due to the coronavirus pandemic but expressing unforced belief in his horses' form.
“I’ve been doing this so long that I understand it’s a high and low sport,” he said, reflecting on the twists and turns of his 2020. “It’s highs and lows constantly, but you’ve got to look forward — I never look back — and just keep going.”
The one subject that produces palpable frustration in his voice is the potential suspension for medication violations. Baffert does not want to be known as one of the “bad actors” in a sport plagued by doping scandals.
“The system is broken,” he said, pointing to the state-by-state mishmash of medication rules that often leave trainers confused. “It was purely a case of contamination, but they’re testing at such low levels now.”
By contamination, he means that Charlatan and Gamine were possibly exposed to lidocaine because Barnes was wearing a pain-relief patch containing the numbing agent. In Justify’s case, Baffert said the Triple Crown winner was exposed to scopolamine because he munched on jimson weed that was mixed into his feed and bedding. That explanation, supported by the fact horses in neighboring barns also tested positive for scopolamine, satisfied the California Horse Racing Board, which cleared Baffert.
“When things like that happen, they drag the horse, the owner and me through the mud, and it really leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” he said.
Authentic was the top 3-year-old in Baffert’s talent-laden barn before Nadal and Charlatan stepped up during Derby prep season. With four victories and a runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Derby, it wasn’t as if he’d stunk it up heading into his showdown with Tiz the Law at Churchill Downs. So Baffert wasn’t shocked when the bay colt came through.
“He’s a very talented horse,” he said. “He was always very talented.”
He brushed off the notion that he somehow drew the best out of Authentic with unusually rigorous work.
“I just trained him,” he said. “I always run fit horses. I don’t know why people use the word ‘hard.’”
He also thought too much was made of Authentic’s unfocused finish in winning the Haskell, noting that the horse needs constant encouragement down the stretch and that jockey Mike Smith let up because he had a big lead. Smith did not see Ny Traffic pulling close as the finish line approached.
“He wasn’t tired or anything,” Baffert said. “It looked like life and death, but I know the horse really well.”
With John Velazquez riding him in the Derby, Authentic showed his mettle by pulling away after Tiz the Law challenged at the top of the stretch.
“To turn the tables on him, we’re going to have to improve or he’s going to have to not run as well as he did in the Derby, and I don’t see any of that happening at this point in time, as far as him not bringing his A game,” said Bret Calhoun, who trained Mr. Big News to a third-place finish in the Derby and will take another shot at Authentic in the Preakness. “Based off the race in the Haskell, you thought the mile and a quarter might be an Achilles' heel for him, but obviously, he proved everyone wrong. He set hot early fractions, and he carried it.”
Baffert believes the pandemic actually helped Authentic by pushing the Derby to September and the Preakness to October. While the timing proved ruinous for Nadal and Charlatan, it allowed Authentic to mature into his considerable tools.
“To me, I think he’s getting better,” Baffert said. “You can tell he’s filling out. … He’s just turned into such a superior animal.”
It’s the kind of superlative he applied to his two Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify. He also still believes in Thousand Words, the “quirky” colt who won the Aug. 1 Shared Belief Stakes before he acted up at the Derby.
“That was just a freaky thing,” Baffert said. “He got mad, went up and his hind legs went out from under him. He’s always been tough to saddle. You have to saddle him on the walk and when you stop, he gets mad. He’s not that bad, but you have to keep moving. Then once he has the saddle on, he’s fine.”
He promised his team (sans Barnes, who’s still laid up with nine screws in his surgically repaired wrist) won’t make the same mistake at Pimlico.
“He’s got a lot of speed,” Baffert said of the former $1-million yearling purchase. “He’s not as quick as Authentic, but if he can get in a nice rhythm and be right there, who knows? … He was so immature. Mentally, he’s starting to catch up. But he’s always been a bit of a slow learner.”
As to the possibility of breaking his seven-Preakness tie with 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden, Baffert gave his usual demurral.
“I have never chased any records in my life. They just happen,” he said. “I’ve never stopped to smell the roses and take it in. I’m always thinking about the next week.”
145TH PREAKNESS STAKES
At Pimlico Race Course
Saturday, 5:45 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 4:30 p.m.)
Post; Horse; Jockey; Odds
1; Excession; Sheldon Russell; 30-1
2; Mr. Big News; Gabriel Saez; 12-1
3; Art Collector; Brian Hernandez Jr.; 5-2
4; Swiss Skydiver; Robby Albarado; 6-1
5; Thousand Words; Florent Geroux; 6-1
6; Jesus' Team; Jevian Toledo; 30-1
7; NY Traffic; Horacio Karamanos; 15-1
8; Max Player; Paco Lopez; 15-1
9; Authentic; John Velazquez; 9-5
10; Pneumatic; Joe Bravo; 20-1
11; Liveyourbeastlife; Trevor McCarthy; 30-1