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5:22 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Legendary horse trainer Baffert cut his teeth in Arizona long before raising Triple Crown threat American Pharoah

Garry Jones/The Associated Press<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, left, talks to his assistant via two-way radio as they wait for the track to be harrowed before bringing out American Pharoah at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., Friday. At right is Bernie Sciappa. American Pharoah will try to become horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978 when he runs in the Belmont Stakes today.

Garry Jones/The Associated Press<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, left, talks to his assistant via two-way radio as they wait for the track to be harrowed before bringing out American Pharoah at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., Friday. At right is Bernie Sciappa. American Pharoah will try to become horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978 when he runs in the Belmont Stakes today.

Hall of Fame horse trainer Bob Baffert didn't shy away from saying it to the national news media this week: He believes that his recently deceased parents, longtime residents of his native Nogales, Arizona, sent him a gift from above in 2015 Triple Crown contender American Pharoah.

Within a year of each other, in 2011 and 2012, Baffert's mother and father died. Their passing left a huge void, and yet Baffert still feels their presence. Typically calm, cool and composed, he chokes up even talking about it.

Yes, American Pharaoh's recent, sudden success has been spiritual for a confident, ambitious man who no longer takes his incredible accomplishments for granted.

Saturday at 3:50 p.m. Arizona time in New York, American Pharoah looks to become the first thoroughbred in nearly four decades, since Affirmed in 1978, to win all three of American horse racing's most iconic races - the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and this afternoon's Belmont.

From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, three horses under the 62-year-old Baffert's care contended for the Triple Crown. Each of them won the first two legs only to lose at Belmont. In 2015, however, Baffert believes that the fourth time will be the charm with American Pharoah, a gifted and gentle, yet temperamental colt who's the heavy favorite to win Saturday.

In his prolific career, Baffert's horses have won 11 Triple Crown races, including four Derbies, six Preaknesses and one Belmont. However, he insists that capturing the elusive Triple Crown is not his primary goal these days.

"I want my horses to run well; otherwise I really don't care," Baffert told the New York Times last month. "The Triple Crown is more for history and the media and New Yorkers. I wanted to win the Kentucky Derby this year. I knew it was mine to lose. I really didn't think I had that many more opportunities left to win another one."

***

Long before Baffert became a world-renowned trainer, he lived in southern Arizona.

Baffert was born and raised in Nogales, a city on Arizona's southeastern border with Mexico, where his father, Bill, operated a ranch. Bill passed down his love for horses and racing to Bob, who hasn't forgotten his roots.

Bob initially cut his teeth on training quarter horses in Arizona and California. He had a brief connection to the old Prescott Downs at the Rodeo Grounds, where horse racing was popular until it relocated with the county fairgrounds to Prescott Valley in the early 2000s. (Yavapai Downs has since gone into bankruptcy and was shut down.)

Baffert remembers how his father used to drive them to Prescott from Nogales in the summer months to race at the Downs.

"As a little kid my dad and I used to run horses in Prescott," Baffert told the Daily Courier in 1999. "I guess I was about 11 years old at the time. In those days, going to Prescott was the thing for me, make no mistake."

Longtime former Arizona State Racing Commission veterinarian Rex Hinshaw of Prescott, who's now 90 years old and developed the first test barn for testing horses for performance-enhancing drugs, knew Baffert when he first came onto the horse-racing scene in Arizona.

He recalls Baffert initially trying his hand as a jockey at the Coconino County Fairgrounds in Flagstaff. But he clearly wasn't cut out for it, and turned to training horses instead.

Trainer John Bassett of Dewey - a star in his own right who won the $2 million All-American Futurity, quarter horse racing's Super Bowl, at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico in September 1999 - became close with Baffert when he started in the business.

"Bassett always said that he was such a sorry rider," Hinshaw said on Friday. "And I think he used to say, 'He couldn't ride a pickle barrel in a phone booth.' So he quit ridin' and went to trainin'."

Hinshaw added that Baffert won his first race as a trainer in his first season training quarter horses. Bassett attended "a lot of the big races (Baffert) won," Hinshaw said.

In their early days training quarter horses in Arizona and California, Hinshaw referred to Baffert and Bassett as "complete outlaws."

"They were jokin' all the time," Hinshaw said.

***

Years later, all of the craziness of competitive horse racing finally caught up with Baffert.

After his mom died, Baffert suffered a heart attack in Dubai, where American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat lives. Baffert was forced to change his stressful, adrenaline-fueled lifestyle following stent surgery.

Baffert takes things more in stride these days. It seems that a new outlook on his personal and professional lives has kept him going. Now he's on the cusp of greatness with a Triple Crown victory in his sights.

Hinshaw, who couldn't bet on racehorses until he retired as a state employee, said he never wagered on one of Baffert's favored horses because "that's like giving him the kiss of death."

Today, Hinshaw will try a different approach with American Pharoah, a horse he thinks has "a real good chance" to win because he can run very well on his "bottom" performance level. A horse runs its best at its peak, like it would at the Kentucky Derby. But it takes two to three weeks, perhaps even a month, after a big race for a horse to level off and peak again, Hinshaw said.

At the Belmont, American Pharoah must be able to outrun an opposing horse that's at its peak while he's still at or near his bottom.

"This time, I'm going to get a $2 win ticket," Hinshaw said of betting on American Pharoah. "And if he (Baffert) does win, I'm going to send it to him and tell him he owes me $2."

That sure would seem prophetic. American Pharoah could become only the 12th horse to ever win the Triple Crown this afternoon.

"Am I lucky or what?" Baffert told the Associated Press earlier this week. "Here I am in this position. I'm telling you it was not supposed to happen."

Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-642-7865