Pegasus Preview Bucket: Baffert back on the scene

- -

(Editor’s note: The days are ticking away until the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup, which packs a powerful purse and plenty of star power. The publicity staff at Gulfstream Park is churning out plenty of preview copy about the world’s riches race and we’re pleased to provide a venue for it to be read. The following is a piece written by Mike Kane about Bob Baffert, who will saddle Arrogate in Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup.)

Now the most recognizable person in racing, Bob Baffert was a low-profile trainer still fairly new to Thoroughbred racing when he made his debut at Gulfstream Park at the 1992 Breeders’ Cup. While Baffert’s trademark white hair was already in full bloom, much has changed since he picked up his first Grade 1 victory in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

Baffert arrived in South Florida a little over 24 years ago with Thirty Slews, whose win at odds of 18-1 in the Breeders’ Cup helped build his reputation. He returns this week with Arrogate, the exciting Breeders’ Cup Classic-winning colt he has prepared for the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational and a rematch with California Chrome.

It is a rare trip for Baffert to race at Gulfstream Park. Based in Southern California, he has had just 17 starts at the track and Arrogate will be his first in ten years.

As he approached the world’s richest horse race, Baffert said he has vivid and very fond memories of that first visit to Gulfstream with Mike Pegram, a co-owner of Thirty Slews, who had encouraged him to switch from Quarter Horse racing. Thirty Slews, a 5-year-old in 1992, was the first Thoroughbred Baffert had purchased at auction. The grandson of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew got his name from his breeding and his selling price, $30,000. Baffert recalls having a lot of fun in South Florida with Pegram, but was confident that he had a contender.

“That was the first time where I was coming to the Breeders’ Cup when I knew I had a chance to win,” Baffert said. “Nobody was talking about my horses. Nobody really knew who I was. I think I still had my cowboy hat then. I’m not sure. It’s the only Breeders’ Cup I didn’t have a tie on.”

Baffert was very nervous in the paddock as he talked with veteran jockey Eddie Delahoussaye about the strategy for the race.

“I was giving him all these instructions, ‘You’ve got to do this: Make sure you get him away from there and get him in the race.’ ” Baffert said, “Eddie looks at me and says, ‘Hey Bob, relax. Relax dude. I’ve got it under control.’ He was trying to calm me down and I told him, ‘You don’t understand, Eddie. I’ve got a shot to win. That’s why I’m nervous.’ That’s when you do get nervous, when you know you can win, that you have a shot. To this day, we still laugh about it.”

Whether he had a cowboy hat or a tie on didn’t matter on Halloween 1992. Baffert had the right horse, a gray who stalked pacesetter Meafara for 5 furlongs and ran her down in the stretch to win by a neck. The 2-1 favorite Rubiano was never a player in the race and ended up fourth.

Baffert said he and his partners watched the race from the old Gulfstream clubhouse and immediately touched off a celebration.

“When he hit the wire, I was up there in the box and I thought that I had reached just the pinnacle of my career,” he said, laughing. “I thought, ‘Man, this is not going to get any better than this.’ I had just won a Breeders’ Cup Sprint. I was just jumping up and down.”

A scramble to get to the winner’s circle followed.

“Somebody said you have to take this elevator to get down in the stands,” he said. “I’m waiting for this elevator and it’s taking forever and forever and I’m going crazy. I said, ‘I need to get down there.’ I told somebody, ‘If I don’t get down there right away they are going to take the picture without me.’ I was worried about that. I was just so green. Really, really green.”

Baffert and his gang made it to the circle in time for the ceremony, the first of his 14 Breeders’ Cup wins.

“We were so excited. It was one of the five to ten top moments of my career,” he said. “We were there with Mike Pegram and we just couldn’t believe it. Here’s the guy who got me into the business and we win this Breeders’ Cup. Plus everybody bet on the horse. It was like I was in a dream. We won. Then we went to Joe’s Stone Crab. It was the first time I was there. I became a regular after that.”

Baffert is 64 and a giant in the sport, a member of the Hall of Fame. He accomplished what many thought was no longer possible, sweeping the Triple Crown with American Pharoah, and has won 12 Triple Crown races. He has won the last three Breeders’ Cup Classics with three different horses, an unprecedented accomplishment. All these years later, that win by Thirty Slews in that first visit to Gulfstream remains special.

“It was just like a fairytale race for me,” he said. “To win it with the first horse I ever bought. What I know now, I probably could have won the Breeders’ Cup with him two or three years in a row. He was such a good horse. He was coming back off a throat surgery, and we weren’t sure if it was going to work. He was a big, beautiful gray horse.”

Though Baffert feels that his career-changing moment came in May 1996 when his first Kentucky Derby starter, Cavonnier, was beaten a whisker by Grindstone and jockey Jerry Bailey, the win by Thirty Slews had a very positive impact.

“What it did to me is you feel the confidence,” he said. “Hey, I think I can compete at this top level and I got a taste of what it’s like to be at the top. The Breeders’ Cup is what really caught my attention about getting into the Thoroughbred business. I remember watching the first Breeders Cup. I was training Quarter Horses at the time and I thought, ‘Hey, that is really cool. Maybe I could win a Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Maybe I could do something like that.’ I never thought about the Derby. To me, the Sprint was a reachable goal. When we won the Sprint, it was wow. I was floating.”

Baffert returned to Gulfstream in 1999 with his 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm for the Grade 1 Donn Handicap. Silver Charm drew the dreaded outside post in the field of 12, carried high weight and finished third.

Later that year, Baffert had eight starters in the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream. He’s had four runners at the track in the years since, including Captain Steve’s victory in the 2001 Donn, but none since January 2007. Baffert said that he has nothing against the track, other than that it’s just a long haul from California to South Florida and he doesn’t like to ship his horses.

Baffert will be back at Gulfstream for the world’s richest race with Juddmonte Farms’ Arrogate, who dazzled with a track record in the Travers last summer after a cross-country trip to Saratoga.

“I’m looking forward to the Pegasus because I’m coming in there with a horse that is doing really well,” Baffert said. “He’s already shown what he can do getting off a plane. I’m really looking forward to it.”