2015 SUCCESS Achiever of the Year: Bob Baffert

Bob Baffert began 2015 as a horse trainer whose legacy was already carved in stone. He’d been inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009 and had more than 2,500 victories and north of $220 million in earnings. He’d been in the business for more than 40 years; his career was the stuff of legends, and he had the respect of his industry. He was just missing this one thing.

And it finally arrived as his horse American Pharoah came tearing around the final turn at the Belmont Stakes in May. There was no doubt: The Triple Crown, the lone professional prize that had eluded him throughout his career, was his. Pharoah, the colt who had already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, ended up beating the field by a full 5½ lengths (a unit of measurement in racing meaning the length of a horse from nose to tail). To win the Triple Crown, which is considered the sport’s greatest achievement, a 3-year-old horse must win racing’s three biggest events in a single year. Before Pharoah, only 11 horses had won the Triple Crown. His was the first Triple Crown win in 37 years—so lengthy a drought, in fact, that many of the sport’s pundits believed that modern training and breeding practices made it an impossible feat. Baffert proved them wrong while surrounded by his family and five children: Taylor, Canyon, Forest, Savannah and Bode.

“I had an idea when [American Pharoah] went into the first turn,” Baffert says. “He gets in that cruising mode, and horses just can’t keep up with him when he’s in that mode. But he still needed some luck. I always expect the worst and hope for the best. But once I saw him going into the last turn, I could tell Pharoah was in that mode.”

Baffert was already one of the sport’s pre-eminent names, thanks to a career that includes 12 Breeders’ Cup victories, four at the Kentucky Derby, six at the Preakness and two at Belmont. Claiming the Crown didn’t create Baffert’s legacy. “That was already assured,” says Brien Bouyea of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “Out at the California racetracks, he’s pretty much revered as a god. It’s not like if he didn’t get this achievement his career would have been thought of any less. But it’s certainly a nice capper.”

In addition to the capping, the Crown win—and run-up to it—catalyzed a resurgence of interest in a sport that enjoys a devoted inside following but tends to break into the national conversation only on special occasions. In short, it was amazing PR. “This horse created a momentum that carried into summer and fall,” Bouyea says. Pharoah and his trainer got big enough that Sports Illustrated announced the horse as a candidate for its Sportsman of the Year award. SportsCenter did a live show from Saratoga; jockey Victor Espinoza parlayed his riding success into a gig on Dancing with the Stars. “It certainly had tremendous cultural impact,” Bouyea says. “And having Bob and Victor as ambassadors helped.”

For Baffert, the road to the Crown took more than four decades. Known equally for his success, shock of snow-white hair, and what industry experts and writers call an “irreverent attitude,” Baffert suffered a heart attack in 2012 and has been, by most accounts, a little mellowed since. “I think his reputation has changed a bit over the years,” says Bouyea. “People have warmed up to him a little more than they had.” Baffert seemingly warmed back: His demeanor with the media eased noticeably, and he let fans and selfie-takers in to see (and pet) American Pharoah.

For his part, the prized colt started 2015 looking impressive but hardly a lock for Crown consideration. Pharoah, Baffert says, had been hurt and was a bit of a question mark. In fact, at the beginning of the year Baffert also had his eye on a second horse, Dortmund. “I actually thought Dortmund would be my Triple Crown horse,” Baffert says. “We knew Pharoah had a lot of talent. But we weren’t sure. We knew he was good, but not super-duper good.”

Baffert kept his team focused, and the super-duper part quickly became clear. Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby by a length and went on to scorch the soaked, muddy field at the Preakness, winning by seven lengths.

 

“You want to be big in those big events; you want to be competitive.”

 

The famed trainer had gone to Belmont in search of the Crown three times previously: in 1997 with Silver Charm, who fell short by three-quarters of a length; 1998 with Real Quiet, who lost by a nostril; and 2002 with War Emblem, who finished eighth. The list of horses deemed unbeatable is full of horses that were eventually beaten, including such names as Big Brown and Smarty Jones. But down the stretch this time, the outcome wasn’t in question.

Bouyea says the Belmont was simply electric. “Belmont’s always a lot of fun,” says Bouyea. “But there’s a different atmosphere when there’s a Crown on the line. Once Pharoah started cruising around the grandstand, the place started shaking, champagne was spraying in the air, there were 90,000 people going nuts. It went on for 25 or 30 minutes; I’d never seen anything like that.”

Espinoza says the recipe is simple. “You need to be with a good team and on the same page when it comes to the big races,” he says. “Bob and I are always on the same page. We just have that luck together.”

These days Pharoah is officially retired. To celebrate a career that included nine victories in 11 starts (and earned $8.7 million all told), he spends his days at the Coolmore conglomerate’s Ashford Stud farm in Kentucky, home to a couple of other Derby winners.

At 62, Baffert can count 2015 as the year he achieved his biggest goal, but he can also keep looking ahead. Horse racing isn’t like other sports, where age and time can push you out. There’s only one question: What now? “It’s like any coach—if you win the Super Bowl, you can’t wait to get back there again,” he says. “The Kentucky Derby drives me more than anything. You want to be in those big events; you want to be competitive. And if you’re lucky enough to win them, it’s pretty exciting.”

He happens to be looking at a new, young horse—one he is prepping for 2016. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think [Pharoah] is probably a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse. But you never know. We might just get lucky and do it again.”

 

Read more 2015 SUCCESS Achievers of the Year stories:

2015 SUCCESS Achievers of the Year2015 SUCCESS Achievers of the Year2015 SUCCESS Achievers of the Year2015 SUCCESS Achievers of the Year

 

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Jeff Vrabel

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