Baffert’s Bounce Back on Preakness Day

Racing ran the gamut of emotions at Pimlico on Saturday, from tragedy to triumph to the scratch of one of the favorites, and finally to the end, at least for now, of the feel-good story of Mage and his quest for the Triple Crown. But most of all it was about the latest chapter in the polarizing career of Bob Baffert. ~ Steve Haskin

Baffert’s Bounce Back on Preakness Day

By Steve Haskin

Photo by Tommy Gilligan, USA TODAY Sports


Early on Preakness day Bob Baffert and his family had to endure the anguish and grief of seeing their star 3-year-old Havnameltdown suffer a fatal injury in the Chick Lang Stakes and watch his rider Luis Saez being put in an ambulance on a stretcher. This was a horse co-owned by his longtime owner and friend Mike Pegram, who talked Baffert into going into Thoroughbred racing from the world of Quarter-horses.

Thoughts of the Preakness Stakes later that afternoon, in which Baffert was running National Treasure, faded rapidly and their main concern was consoling their staff, who had seen Havnameltdown run his heart out in defeat in the Saudi Derby halfway around the world several months earlier.

But those who have known Baffert since his meteoric rise in the late 1990s are well aware that he is most dangerous following the lowest of times. That is when he manages to climb out of the abyss and turn misfortune into success. That misfortune could range from equine injuries, drug positives and suspensions to crushing defeats on the racetrack. But now he had to deal with a fatality at a time when racing was under intense microscopic scrutiny following the tragedies that plagued Churchill Downs during Derby week.

As someone who has been close to Baffert since his early days in Thoroughbred racing and having written his autobiography, I was fully convinced that he would somehow find a way to wipe away the tears and once again turn adversity into triumph.

After all, the script for the 2023 Preakness Stakes looked as if it had been already written. Yes, there was the Cinderella story of Kentucky Derby winner Mage, but Baffert’s career was far removed from fairy tales after writing his own years ago, coming from the small border town of Nogales, Arizona to attain unimaginable success in Thoroughbred racing, especially in the classics.

Now here he was running in the Preakness two weeks after the conclusion of his unprecedented two-year ban by Churchill Downs, in which he had to turn his potential Kentucky Derby horses over to other trainers, mainly his former assistant Tim Yakteen, in order to allow them to run in the Derby. One can only imagine what Baffert, who lives for developing Derby horses, felt seeing those horses leave his barn the past two years. Although National Treasure was one of those horses this year he was returned to Baffert following a fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, eliminating him from Kentucky Derby consideration.

As it turned out the Preakness came up with only eight horses, none of whom had the natural speed of National Treasure, who was talented, but late-maturing. Now back in Baffert’s barn, he was getting blinkers on and wound up drawing post 1 with John Velazquez, who had already stolen two Kentucky Derbys on the front end for Baffert with Authentic and Medina Spirit. Then, First Mission, the only horse with the tactical speed to pressure National Treasure, was scratched the day before the race. Here we go again, I thought, with another Baffert horse loose on the lead with no one to prevent him from slowing the pace down to a crawl.

But on this occasion, Baffert and his wife Jill had to temporarily erase the horrific images from early in the day and all the tears that were shed before focusing their attention on winning the Preakness.

I had witnessed most of Baffert’s roller coaster rides over the past 27 years and I knew that he and Jill would wipe away those tears and turn their thoughts to National Treasure as they headed to the paddock. I also knew from experience how resilient Baffert has always been and how he somehow always finds the proverbial light at the end of tunnel. In other words, National Treasure in my mind was already on his way to the winner’s circle, Mage or no Mage. After all, the script was clearly written and there for all to see, and I have read that same script many times since 1997.

It all started in 1996, and if you can envision a trainer torn to pieces by a defeat, that was Baffert after his first Kentucky Derby starter, Cavonnier, appeared a sure winner in the stretch only to be nailed right on the wire by Grindstone in one of the closest Derby finishes of all time. A despondent Baffert was sure he had lost his one big shot at racing’s ultimate glory and would never return to the Derby again. But he was back the very next year and reversed that photo, winning by a head with Silver Charm, who propelled his trainer to rock star status and the beginning of one of the greatest training careers of all time.

In 2001, Baffert was certain he had his first Triple Crown winner in Point Given and was devastated when the towering chestnut came up empty in the Derby, finishing fifth as the 9-5 favorite. But Point Given bounced back and went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes on his way to Horse of the Year honors.

In 2002, Baffert uncharacteristically had no Derby horses, a situation he found hard to accept, but he did manage to still find controversy when he entered a huge longshot named Danthebluegrassman, which kept the horse of a chief competitor out of the Derby. Then on Derby morning, he scratched Danthebluegrassman when the colt was a reported to have tied up. About two weeks before the Derby, Baffert had become enamored with the Illinois Derby winner, War Emblem, who was then purchased by Baffert’s client The Thoroughbred Corp. War Emblem wound up winning the Kentucky Derby at odds of 20-1, giving Baffert three Derby winners in six years. He had turned having nothing into his third Derby and Preakness winner.

After going through a Triple Crown cold spell for several years, Baffert had the Derby favorite in Lookin At Lucky in 2010. But the colt drew the dreaded inside post and had one of the most nightmarish trips in Derby history, getting roughed up and slammed into the rail. He managed to come from 18th to finish sixth and then bounced back to capture the Preakness two weeks later, giving Baffert his first classic winner in eight years.

In 2012, Baffert went through the biggest crisis of his life, suffering a heart attack while in Dubai. Doctors inserted a stent to unclog his arteries and three weeks later Baffert watched on TV as his horses won all three major stakes at Oaklawn Park – the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap, and Grade 2 Fantasy Stakes. The Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister then ran a sensational race to finish second in the Kentucky Derby after setting a blistering pace and was beaten a neck in the Preakness.

In 2016, Baffert was undergoing one of the least productive years of his career, winning only two Grade 1 races with Lord Nelson, both sprints, though the middle of August. Then out of nowhere came a monster named Arrogate, who had never run in a stakes, to win the Travers Stakes by 13 1/2 lengths in an astounding 1:59 1/5, shattering the 36-year-old track record. He followed that up with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic upsetting California Chrome and was elected to the Hall of Fame this year.

The following year Baffert unveiled one of his most brilliant 3-year-olds in years when Mastery romped in the San Felipe Stakes. It was a crushing blow when the colt was injured shortly after and never ran again. But two weeks after the San Felipe, Baffert won the Dubai World Cup with Arrogate in one of the most breathtaking runs seen in years. It was obvious by now that Baffert’s bad times were short-lived.

In 2018, Baffert had a leading Derby contender in McKinzie, but like Mastery he was injured after the San Felipe Stakes. Up steps a lightly raced undefeated colt with only two career starts named Justify, who wins the Santa Anita Derby and then becomes Baffert’s second Triple Crown winner, following American Pharoah in 2015. Like in the late 90s and early 2000s, Baffert was once again the undisputed king of Thoroughbred racing, but wielding even more power this time. In fact, he may have gotten too successful and some felt it was time to remove him from his throne.

In 2020, with the Derby run in September due to the pandemic, the weekend could not have started off worse for Baffert and Jill when 6-5 McKinzie was upset in the Alylsheba Stakes and the stable’s beloved Gamine suffered a shocking defeat at 3-5 in the Kentucky Oaks. The main reason they traveled to Kentucky in a pandemic year was to see Gamine even though they had two horses, Authentic and Thousand Words, in the Derby. Still reeling over Gamine’s defeat they were dealt another blow when Thousand Words reared up on the walking ring before the Derby and flipped over backwards, which sent assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes tumbling to the grounds. Baffert’s rock for so many years, who traveled everywhere with the horses, suffered a broken wrist and was sent to the hospital, missing the Derby. Thousand Words, who had won three stakes and was coming off a victory in the Shared Belief Stakes had to be scratched, as the nightmare continued. So what happens? Of course Baffert wins the Derby with Authentic, who upset the 3-5 favorite Tiz the Law.

After that, all hell broke loose, with Baffert coming up with several positive drug tests, which were overages of legal medications. Baffert began to feel the wrath of the public. It all came toppling down in 2021 when he won his second straight Kentucky Derby with the hard-trying unlikely hero Medina Spirit, a Cinderella story himself, having been purchased at public auction for $1,000. All looked bright with the world again until the day after the Derby when it was announced Medina Spirit had come up positive for the steroid Betamethasone. Churchill Downs, in light of the past positives and the stain on the Derby, wound up banning Baffert from running horses in the Derby and at Churchill Downs for two years. The New York Racing Association followed by also banning Baffert. Both rulings, as well as the disqualification of Medina Spirit from the Derby two months after the colt’s sudden death from an apparent heart attack following a workout, set off a rash of court hearings and appeals. Racing’s one-time hero, good guy, and rock star was now being attacked from all sides on social media.

In 2022, Baffert, because of the Churchill Downs ban, was forced to turn several of his top Derby prospects over to other trainers, again mainly Tim Yakteen. But Baffert still kept firing on all cylinders that spring when Country Grammer captured the Dubai World Cup for Medina Spirit’s owner Zedan Racing. The two horses who made it to the Derby for Yakteen, Messier and Taiba, both finished up the track.

This year, Churchill made Baffert give up his 3-year-olds by February 28 in order to be eligible for the Derby. Among those sent to Yakteen was National Treasure, who had the misfortune of having to chase Baffert’s lightning-fast Cave Rock in the American Pharoah Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Then at 3, he had to be scratched from the San Felipe Stakes with a sore foot. But following his fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby, he no longer was a Derby horse and was returned to Baffert.

And that brings us back to the Preakness. National Treasure and John Velazquez, as expected, followed the script perfectly. Velazquez had a good break and sent National Treasure to the lead. This time, Mage broke well and was able to sit behind the leader in third, three lengths back. But once National Treasure was allowed to get away with a sluggish 1:13 2/5 three-quarters over a very fast track you knew the race was all but over. Mage tried to close to gap but you could tell immediately that the closing kick he showed in the Derby wasn’t there. It was Blazing Sevens who actually went after National Treasure and moved alongside him looking like the stronger of the two. But National Treasure, after that slow three-quarters, had plenty left and battled back to win by a head. And he really had to pick it up, coming home in a rapid :23 2/5 and :18. Mage ran evenly late and could do no better than hold his position in third, beaten 2 1/4 lengths. It was still a good effort from the Derby winner and we surely will hear from him again. The Preakness actually turned into a good race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, with the third- and fourth-place finishers in that race finishing one-two.

I can’t say that Baffert got any additional satisfaction knocking off the Derby winner and preventing NYRA from having a horse going for the Triple Crown and all the extra revenue that would have bought in. But somewhere beneath the gamut of emotions he had to be feeling, there very well could have been that underlying sentiment after all he had been put through this past year by both organizations. Racing fans will probably debate who was right and who was wrong in this whole sordid affair for many years, but right now Baffert’s next step is to return to New York and try to add the Belmont Stakes.

As for National Treasure, a son of one of the nation’s most popular sires, Quality Road, he is an outcross in his first four generations, but his fifth generation is a Who’s Who of classic horses and sires. He is inbred to Raise A Native, sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince, inbred to Triple Crown winner Secretariat, inbred three times to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Northern Dancer, and inbred to English Derby and 2,000 Guineas winner Sir Ivor. Also in his fifth generation are Nijinsky II, the last English Triple Crown winner, Damascus, winner of the Preakness and Belmont, Bold Bidder, the sire of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid, Tamerett, a daughter of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Tim Tam, Gold Digger, a daughter of Preakness and Belmont winner Nashua, and Bowl of Flowers, winner of the Coaching Club American Oaks.

Looking back at this year’s Preakness, all I know is that Bob Baffert once again has risen from the depths of defeat, despair, and distrust from a once adoring public, and was able to bask in the glow of victory with his horses, his help, and his family. And in the end that’s all that matters.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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