- -

He wrote the speeches, all of them, from the Hall of Fame to the Eclipse Awards.

He went to the father/daughter dances with Bob Baffert’s daughter, when the trainer went on the road to Churchill Downs or Dubai or Belmont Park, always calling his college buddy afterward and reminding him, “You owe me, brother. You owe me.”

When Baffert won his first Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm, Baffert looked down from the infield celebration and there was his friend, his good-times-and-bad-times comrade, crying like a baby.

Every time Baffert and his friends, Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, won a race or heard something funny, they called their friend, “Brad, you’ve got to hear this one…” He would laugh and one-up the punch line, the ultimate closer. He was a natural at that.

Baffert’s mother called him her fifth son.

All Baffert’s kids called him, Uncle Brad.

His sense of humor was brilliant, his loyalty unconditional, his death at 62…devastating.

At his funeral in the summer of 2017, Pegram, Watson, Weitman and Baffert were reminiscing and reeling, there is nothing like mortality to jolt a man and his friends. You know the moments, over a drink, after you’ve been strong at the church, strong for the bereaved, when you make proclamations about being a better man, about living right, about telling your loved ones that you love them. For racetrackers, they say all those things and then they think bigger.

“We need to name a good son of a gun after him,” Watson said. “I mean a good one.”

Yeah, a good one. A burner who could replace the likes of Hoppertunity, Real Quiet and Silverbulletday for Pegram, Watson, Weitman. Well, at least bring the trio of Baffert loyalists back to the top of the game.

“I’ve got one who I think could be a good one,” Baffert said.

The trainer was thinking about a bay son of Street Sense, purchased for $170,000 the previous September. Light, athletic, he looked like an old-time Thoroughbred to Baffert. Those are the types he likes. Arrogate, American Pharoah…they get more oxygen, stay sounder.

Baffert reserved the name – McKinzie.

“We named him and I swear that horse got better as soon as we named him,” Baffert said. “He started working better.”

Offering a little help from above was nothing for Brad McKinzie.

A Longtime executive at Los Alamitos Racecourse, McKinzie was integral in getting Baffert, then a Quarter Horse guy, to the Quarter Horse track, was integral in lengthening the track from a bull ring to a proper mile, was integral in finding a new home, a new venue for Thoroughbreds after Hollywood Park closed.

As for the horse, well, he came around like he knew he was honoring a best friend.

“I always knew he was special before I ran him,” Baffert said.

McKinzie won his debut at Santa Anita, 83 days after Brad McKinzie died. The Kentucky-bred colt came back to finish second and moved up to first through disqualification in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (nothing like having a steward in the sky), won the Sham Stakes in his third start and finished second in the San Felipe. A strained hock derailed him on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Disappointing then, a godsend now.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” Baffert said. “He didn’t have to go through all the Triple Crown stuff and Justify filled in great. Now we’ve got a nice older horse.”

McKinzie returned that fall, won the Pennsylvania Derby, finished 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in what Baffert calls a mistake. Since then, McKinzie hasn’t been worse than second in five graded stakes, including a romp in the Whitney Saturday.

Mike Smith has ridden McKinzie in every start, some have been brilliant and some have been brutal, but all have been poignant.

“What makes me happy is we got that big Grade 1 win for him. It’s for Bob, he’s named after Bob’s best friend in life, that’s important to Bob and Mike and the guys,” Smith said. “It means that much to me because I know how much he means to them. He’s extra special because of his name. The money is not the pressure, it’s the time and the meaning behind it, that’s priceless. You can’t pay for that kind of stuff. Money, I can make the money, I’m not worried about losing a paycheck, that’s the least of my worries. It’s how much it means to everybody.”

To Baffert, McKinzie, the horse, is a tribute to McKinzie, the man.

“He was the funniest guy, he was so smart. He was my number one fan. We all miss him so much because every time something happened, we’d call Brad, ‘Can you believe this…’ ” Baffert said. “My mother would always say that he was her fifth son. That’s how close we were. His mother is still alive, I’m sure she’s watching, the horse keeps her going. He had a big heart, he took care of my kids when I wasn’t there. I’d call, ‘Brad I need you.’ He would show up. He would always show up.”

Just like the horse.