Secretariat

Derby Recap: Bob and Jill’s Rocky Road to the Roses

Bob and Jill’s Rocky Road to the Roses

By Steve Haskin

 

On March 26, 2012 at 3 a.m., Bob Baffert’s life changed forever. That is when he awoke in his hotel room in Dubai complaining of chest pains. His wife Jill immediately called paramedics who rushed him to City Hospital, where stents were inserted into his blocked arteries.

From that point on, Baffert entered the third and most successful phase of his life. His first phase began in 1997 when he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm and followed it up the following year by once again winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown with Real Quiet. Both times he saw his hopes for a Triple Crown sweep thwarted in close finishes, with Silver Charm losing the Belmont in the final yards by a half-length and Real Quiet losing right on the wire by a nose.

Those two Triple Crowns made Baffert a national celebrity with his quick wit and larger-than-life personality, and of course with his distinguishable head of snow-white hair. In 2001, Baffert felt strongly he was going to get that Triple Crown sweep with the mighty Point Given. However, the towering chestnut was upset in the Kentucky Derby, but went on to score impressive victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and followed it up with victories in the Haskell Invitational and Travers Stakes before retiring with an injury. The very next year, Baffert was back in the national spotlight winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with War Emblem, but once again that third leg eluded him when War Emblem stumbled badly at the start and could never recover, finishing out of the money.

So in the span of six years, Baffert won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness four times, and the Belmont Stakes once. He was the unchallenged king of Thoroughbred racing.

But this sport has a way of humbling you, and in the next nine years, Baffert won one Triple Crown race – the 2010 Preakness with Lookin At Lucky. And he still was looking for his first victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He won his share of stakes during that time, but it was the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic that were always his main goals. The great entertainer Al Jolson used to have the theater lights turned up when he was performing so he could see the faces in the audience. Well, Baffert also needed those lights turned up so he could shine on racing’s brightest stage.

Then came his heart attack in Dubai and the seemingly indestructible Bob Baffert was humbled in a far more profound way than just being in a prolonged Triple Crown slump. Little did he know that phase two of his career was over.

Since his brush with death, Baffert, in the nine years since, has won the Kentucky Derby three times, the Preakness twice, the Belmont twice, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic three times. He not only finally got his elusive Triple Crown when American Pharoah swept all three races in 2015 to become the first horse to accomplish the feat in 37 years, he did it again in 2018 with Justify. During this time Baffert also won the Haskell Invitational four times, the Travers twice, the Santa Anita Handicap twice, the Pacific Classic twice, the Dubai World Cup, the Santa Anita Derby three times, the Hollywood/Santa Anita Gold Cup three times, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Met Mile, Whitney, Kentucky Oaks, and a total of seven Breeders’ Cup races.

With him since their marriage in 2002, has been Jill, who not only was a stabilizing influence on his life, but his number one defender against all the so-called haters that emerged on social media. The old Bob Baffert might very well have been pounding his chest during this amazing run, but Jill would not let that happen, always keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Just when Bob and Jill had thought they had seen it all, experiencing racing’s highest of highs and lowest of lows (the injuries and deaths of several horses), they encountered a series of events in a 24-hour span last weekend that sent their emotions on a roller coaster ride they had never experienced before, especially during the last 30 minutes.

The Bafferts, with their son Bode and their dog Tank, packed up and headed to Kentucky to see their top horses run at Churchill Downs, with the main focus on their budding superstar filly Gamine, who was coming off two Ruffian-like romps that stamped her as something extraordinary. Of course, there also was their top-class older horse McKinzie going in the Alysheba Stakes and their pair of Authentic and Thousand Words, who were in the Kentucky Derby, but Baffert knew very well it was going to take a Herculean performance to defeat the big favorite Tiz the Law.

The weekend started off horribly when on Friday, McKinzie finished an uninspired fourth as the 6-5 favorite. Then came the shocker of them all. Gamine, favored at 3-5, gave way in the upper stretch and faded to third, beaten three lengths by 15-1 longshot Shedaresthedevil. Baffert and Jill were crushed. Gamine was the main reason they had traveled cross-country during a pandemic. This was to be her bridge to superstardom.

Now their only hope was to somehow upset what was to be one of the shortest-priced favorites in Kentucky Derby history. As they saddled in the paddock, Authentic’s odds were pretty stable at 8-1, while Thousand words was fluctuating between 11-1 and 12-1, as Tiz the Law was bet down to 3-5. Baffert was not used to sending out Derby horses with odds this high.

Just when Bob and Jill thought things couldn’t get any worse, Thousand Words reared on the walking ring and flipped over backwards, sending assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes tumbling to the ground. Fortunately, the horse was OK, but Barnes had to be taken to the hospital with a broken wrist, and on the advice of the veterinarian, Thousand Words was scratched. The weekend was now officially a disaster.

But this was Bob Baffert, the Lazarus of horse racing, who always seems to rise from the dead, as he did almost literally on that morning in Dubai. As he did in 2014 when he couldn’t get his two best 3-year-olds, Hoppertunity and Bayern, to the Derby and had to watch Bayern finish ninth, beaten 20 lengths in the Preakness, but saw him emerge as a star, winning the Haskell Invitational and Pennsylvania Derby before giving Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. As he did in 2016, going from the ultimate high of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep to a dismal 10th place Derby finish by Mor Spirit, and then unleashing a monster that summer in Arrogate, who crushed his field in track-record time in the Travers before defeating California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to walk away with the 3-year-old championship. As he did in 2017, when he lost his budding star, the undefeated San Felipe and Los Alamitos Futurity winner Mastery, to injury, but two weeks later watched in awe with everyone else as Arrogate scored one of the most amazing victories ever in the Dubai World Cup. And as he did in 2018 when his big 3-year-old McKinzie, winner of the San Felipe and Sham Stakes, dropped off the Derby trail only to be replaced by Triple Crown winner Justify.

As it turned out, this year would be no different. From the depths of Gamine’s and McKinzie’s defeats and Thousand Words’ accident and Jimmy Barnes’ broken wrist came yet another Kentucky Derby victory when Authentic turned back the challenge of Tiz the Law and enabled Baffert to tie Ben Jones’ iconic record of six Kentucky Derby victories that had lasted for 68 years. Baffert, still stunned by the turn of events, then was given a reminder how quickly things can change in racing when Authentic got spooked in the winner’s circle and put him on the seat of his pants. It was more embarrassing than anything, but it could have been much worse. For Baffert to win the Derby sandwiched by his assistant and then himself both being thrown to the ground by two different horses was something that could happen only to him, for no one writes scripts quite like Bob Baffert.

As usual, Jill was there with him to experience the bizarre gamut of emotions, culminating with what Baffert called “the most crazy 30 minutes I’ve had in racing.”

For Jill, it was an even crazier 30 minutes. “Friday was the day we thought would be our big day,” she said. “We felt Gamine had the best chance of winning and we thought McKinzie was going to run great. So that was a big disappointment. Then on Saturday we arrived at the track around 4 o’clock. We watched a couple of races and we went to saddle the horses. I wasn’t even in the paddock, I was standing outside the paddock talking to Jeff Lifson (of West Point Stable) when Bode comes running up to me and said. ‘Mama, why was Thousand Words scratched?’ I go, ‘What? That can’t be right.’ But I looked up and saw that the number 10 horse was off the board. So I hurried to the paddock and ran into someone from Spendthrift, I think it might have been Ned Toffey.

“I asked him what happened and he told me, ‘The horse flipped over and I think Jimmy broke his arm.’ I saw Bob and he ran me through what happened. Jimmy was in First Aid, so I ran over to First Aid and Jimmy was still there and they were trying to decide if they could get him out through the protesters. Jimmy was going to stay and watch the race, but they felt they better get him to the hospital and start moving things along with his arm. I asked him if he wanted me to go with him and he said, ‘Of course not, stay and go win the race.’ In the meantime I was trying to call Kim, Bob’s assistant, and texted Dana (Jimmy’s wife) to get all the insurance information and texted it to Jimmy in the ambulance.”

With all that taken care of, Jill got to the paddock just before they were getting in the gate to watch the race with Bob. She remembers seeing the break, but doesn’t remember too much about the first part of the race, as she felt overwhelmed by everything and bent over trying to catch her breath. She looked up when they were halfway down the backstretch and watched as Authentic turned for home still on the lead. But when Tiz the Law moved up alongside, she thought, like everyone else, he was going to blow past Authentic. When he didn’t they thought, “Geez, this horse might win.” In the last eighth of a mile, Jill kept shouting, “Get it for Jimmy…Get it for Jimmy.”

“Usually when I watch a race I try to be a little reserved, because it never translates well when you see yourself on TV screaming your head off,” Jill said. “But this time I took leave of my senses. When he won I couldn’t process everything in my head what had happened to Jimmy and that the horse had just run lights out. We were all kind of shell shocked. I hate to say that because you don’t want to diminish the horse in any way, but we weren’t expecting it. We were still in disbelief about what had happened in the paddock, especially since Bob had never had a horse scratched in the paddock, let alone in the Derby.

“Everyone was just stunned. I felt like I was in a haze. I didn’t feel like I was in that moment. We walked across to the winner’s circle, and I had never had an anxiety attack, but I couldn’t catch my breath and I felt like I was going to throw up. Somebody asked me, ‘Mrs. Baffert, can I get you some water?’ I said yes and he went and got me water and said, ‘If you’re going to vomit do it in the bushes.’ I sat on the steps to the winner’s platform to gather myself. Then the horse comes in and Bob tells everyone, ‘Nobody clap, just keep it down’ Everything still was kind of hazy, but the way I remember it, Bob was trying to get in position and I could see the horse high-stepping by the flowers and yelled to Bob to watch out. He tried to push me out of the way and the horse got him with his back end, and Bob’s momentum was going downhill and he couldn’t recover. He went down and landed on his back, and I’m thinking ‘Oh, my God.’ Fortunately, Bob was OK, but the horse stepped on Wayne Hughes’ son-in-law Eric Gustavson’s ankle, and he was in a lot of pain. You could actually see the horse’s hoofprint on his shoe.”

As it turned out, it was the ribbons at the bottom of the blanket of roses that came undone and kept hitting the horse around his ankles, and as Jill said, “He could see them out of the corner of his eye and he just lost his mind.”

Jill summed up the whirlwind experience of Derby Day by calling it “the damndest, most exciting, most terrifying 30 minutes of my life.”

Afterward, Bob told Jill he now holds the record of being the only Derby trainer “to wind up flat on his ass in the winner’s circle.”

“I still can’t believe it all happened,” Jill said. “It hadn’t been a good year with everything that has been going on.” That included Bob losing two top Derby horses, Nadal and Charlatan, to injury and having Gamine and Charlatan testing positive for the numbing agent lidocaine at Oaklawn Park, which resulted from Jimmy Barnes wearing a medicinal patch that contained a small amount of lidocaine to relieve the pain from a fractured pelvis suffered in 2017.

So, the 146th Kentucky Derby is history. Bob and Jill sent Bode and Tank to Tennessee to stay with her family while they headed to the yearling sales where things should return to normal and they can look for the horse that perhaps one day will get Bob that record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby. One thing is for sure. All future Derby trails will seem like a stroll in the park to the Bafferts compared to the turbulent journey of 2020 and its chaotic conclusion.

Photo by Mike Sekulic