ARCADIA, Calif. —
Every year, when the summer gives way to fall, trainer Bob Baffert tells his staff, “I need to restock the pond.”
Off to the horse sales he goes, to inspect firsthand the yearlings who might eventually sustain his magical touch with 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown series.
On the phone he stays, constantly fielding calls from owners of the finest stables, all of them eager to entrust their latest handsomely pedigreed prospects to Baffert.
By the time the deadline to submit candidates for the three Triple Crown events — the highest-profile races in horse racing — arrives in late January, Baffert’s golden pond invariably has been replenished.
This year has been better than most. Baffert, the winningest trainer in Triple Crown history, enters the season with 17 nominated thoroughbreds.
The list is notable not for its quantity — Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher submitted as many names, and Steve Asmussen, with 27, has even more — but for its quality: Baffert trains three of the top contenders, a dominating stable of favorites so fearsome that trainer Jeff Bonde referred to them as “those Baffert Maseratis.”
Though Baffert fine-tunes thoroughbreds across the spectrum for age, gender and racing surface, his focus long has been squarely on coaching up 3-year-olds for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
“I joke with him: You get a rash when you have a turf horse in the barn,” said Garrett O’Rourke, general manager of Juddmonte Farms. Juddmonte’s Martial Eagle is one of Baffert’s Crown-nominated trainees.
Some trainers attend to as many as four times as many horses as Baffert. With his comparatively modest contingent, currently numbering in the 70s, he can target the Triple Crown, a sphere in which he has no equal.
Justify’s sweep of the Triple Crown races last year, which followed the Baffert-guided American Pharoah’s identical feat in 2015, raised his total of wins in Crown events to an unmatched 15, including five in the Derby.
“I’m trying to be in that position every year,” Baffert said of his relentless obsession with the races. “I’m constantly looking for that next great horse.”
This season shapes up as an embarrassment of riches like few before. Game Winner and Improbable, ranked first and third in the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll for the age group, ran in the Rebel Stakes on Saturday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which Baffert has won a half-dozen times. Game Winner finished second in the second division race, and Improbable finished second in the first division. The two horses had been ticketed for the San Felipe Stakes the previous weekend at Santa Anita until the track was temporarily closed to address an inordinate number of equine fatalities.
The Rebel Stakes could have resembled a Baffert private party had he enlisted the fifth-ranked horse, Mucho Gusto; instead, he will be dispatched elsewhere later this month as the trainer plays traffic cop — scattering his charges, lest they deny one another Derby qualifying points from the most prominent prep races.
“Bob seems to have it down to a science,” said jockey Mike Smith, who was Justify’s pilot and has since landed aboard the Peter Fluor-owned Roadster, a recent winner at Santa Anita. “The program is just like clockwork. It’s not one thing but all the little things. He is not only there to be in it, but to win it.”
That Baffert would become master of the 3-year-old universe was the longest of long shots after he made an unusual transition from training quarter-horses in his late 30s. His hair was snow-like even then, and hidden under a cowboy hat, when he appeared unannounced at the venerable Claiborne Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and declared, “I’d like to see Secretariat,” the retired legend whose record time in the Derby has stood for 41⁄2 decades.
The proprietor, Seth Hancock, leaned from out his desk in a back office, sized up Baffert and directed him outside, to a spot where visitors waited to board a tour bus.
Baffert, who later received a personal tour from Hancock once he achieved a degree of fame, draws motivation from snubs that are more imagined than real nowadays.
“I never felt totally accepted,” he said, attributing perceptions about him to his quarter-horse roots. “I still feel like an outsider.”
In the early days, Baffert had to hustle to line up Triple Crown hopefuls. Now, they seem to be delivered en masse to his doorstep by owners unfazed by the concern that juggling so many horses with the same objective could spread Baffert too thin.
“No, I’ve never had that feeling,” said Gary West, who owns Game Winner and rejected the idea that Baffert plays favorites with his clients.
“He’s an equal-opportunity trainer,” West said. “He doesn’t care if a sheikh or Gary or a guy driving a rusted-out pickup owns the horse. I admire him for that.”
Handling the humans who provide the horses as deftly as he does the animals maintains the pipeline. Several owners said they appreciated Baffert’s sense of humor, which frequently serves as a safety valve during the inevitable anxiety on the Triple Crown trail.
He addresses John Fort, for example, as Hemingway because of the Peachtree Stable owner’s fondness for white cotton linen suits.
“Bob is the most relaxed person in the world,” said Fort, who sent the Crown nominee Metropol to Baffert. “Most of the trainers I see are uptight.”
Baffert subscribes to no set training formula during the lead-up to the Derby. He once researched the methods applied to Secretariat and other luminaries from previous generations, then decided they would be ineffective for his contenders.
“You have to go with your gut feeling” on when to intensify or ease the horses’ training workloads, Baffert said. “They are all different. You have to gauge what each horse can handle.”
A few owners in interviews praised Baffert’s ability to bring a young colt to race fitness, then establish a holding pattern.
“You see other trainers, their horses have a big effort and then don’t show a good effort,” said Elliott Walden, the chief executive of WinStar Farm, which shared in Justify’s ownership and is seeking a repeat of that success with Improbable. Walden, an ex-trainer, is acutely aware of the challenges presented by the lightly raced. Baffert, he said, “knows just how much to do with them between those races.”
That does not mean there won’t be tension; not every owner’s wish can be granted on which prep races to pursue. Only so many qualifying points are available in each, and while Baffert has a major say in which horse races which race, his decisions are not absolute.
“He’s not a my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy,” West said. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, Bob will acquiesce.”
As for the rare exception, Baffert said, “If they have a really dumb idea, I will tell them.”
The racing public views the easygoing Baffert as a relative slacker in his trade, typically checking in at the barn at 6:15 a.m., much later than some of his colleagues. Once there, however, he is all business, especially with horses on the Triple Crown path.
“He likes to portray a jovial, devil-may-care attitude,” O’Rourke said, “but he’s more intense behind the scenes. He worries about every detail. There is nothing haphazard in his barn.”
For added incentive, Baffert, 66, creates perceived slights. After a recent Triple Crown triumph, Baffert said he anticipated an invitation to visit the White House.
“I was all set to talk with the president,” he said. “And … nothing.”