LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On the kind of Kentucky spring morning that makes you glad to be alive, Bob Baffert was talking about the first time horse racing nearly killed him.
The longtime, highly decorated trainer was leaning on the rail along the backstretch at Churchill Downs, a survivor freshly appreciative of his surroundings. The historic Twin Spires loomed across the track in bright sunshine, and a strong Kentucky Derby contender was stabled in his barn. He was talking about 1977.
Back then, Baffert was a college kid who rode quarter horses in his native Arizona to earn spending money, though he readily admits he wasn't a very good jockey; he lacked the nerve and commitment to take the necessary risks for the usual winning rider's purse of $30.
One day on a dusty racetrack in Kingman, he was exercising a horse named Jet Meyer. Baffert's saddle slipped, and he was thrown underneath the horse. Jet Meyer stepped on his chest, cracking his sternum and scraping off the skin.
Still, he was lucky. A blow from the horse's hoof to his head might have been fatal.
A friend put Baffert in the passenger seat of his pickup, then started laughing.
"Look at your boots," the friend said.
The heels of his cheap boots had been ripped off in the fall. Baffert started laughing, too, until the pain stopped him.
He came back to the track to ride the races that night. But first, he climbed on Jet Meyer one more time.
"I got back on that horse," Baffert said. "I worked him."
Retelling the story tickled him to no end. Having a good survivor story certainly beats the alternative – and now Bob Baffert has two.
The second time horse racing tried to kill Baffert was a little over a month ago. Once again, it took dead aim at his chest.
Baffert had flown 17 hours from his home in Los Angeles to the Middle East with his wife, Jill, and son Bode for the Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world. The 59-year-old didn't feel well on the flight. Truth be told, he hadn't been feeling great for nearly a month – his stylist had pointed out that his famous silver hair had basically stopped growing, in retrospect a possible sign of heart problems – and the long trip exacerbated his general discomfort.
Yet, upon arrival in Dubai, Baffert did what a trainer does – he went to the racetrack to check on his horses. He later begged off a dinner function and went to bed. When his phone buzzed in the early Arab morning of March 26 with news from California that one of his horses had won a race, it was the most important sleep interruption of his life.
"If he didn't get that text message to wake him up," Jill Baffert said, "maybe he doesn't wake up."
Bob immediately began describing alarming symptoms to Jill – chest pains, nausea, weakness in his left arm. It was the middle of the night in a foreign country, but Jill didn't waste any time. She ordered her husband into his clothes and called for help.
An old ambulance came and whisked the Bafferts away to a nearly empty hospital emergency room, where doctors confirmed that he'd had a mild heart attack. An emergency procedure was quickly performed and three stents were implanted into two major coronary arteries.
Baffert joked that he was happy to see his surgeon in a nice suit – "Dr. Armani," he called him. But the doctor gave him some sobering news: one artery had been 100 percent blocked, and the other had 90-percent blockage. Full cardiac arrest could have happened at any moment.
If it had happened on the plane, he probably wouldn't have lived. If it had happened at the racetrack, he might not have gotten help as quickly. And as his wife said, he could easily have died in his sleep.
"Everything happened in Bob's favor," Jill said. "I think there was somebody looking out for Bob, because he shouldn't be here."
Yet, here he is at Churchill Downs, one of his happiest places. Baffert has won three Kentucky Derbies and might have the favorite for a fourth in Bodemeister, a regally bred raw talent who scored a smashing, 9½-length victory in the Arkansas Derby to stamp himself as a prime contender in the Run for the Roses. He will also saddle long-shot Liaison in Saturday's 138th running.
In some ways, he is the same Bob Baffert – the track jester, capable of making a joke out of anything. And yet he is a very different Bob Baffert as well.
There is a set rhythm to Baffert interviews at Churchill Downs leading up to the Derby.
On mornings when his horses have serious workouts, Baffert will drive from his backside barn to the front of the sprawling racetrack and watch them through binoculars from the grandstand, stopwatch in hand. Then he will drive his Escalade back to the stable area and meet the media members already assembled outside Barn 33. Almost every time, he will open with a joke.
On April 24, after Bodemeister completed his work, Baffert drove his Escalade back to the barn as usual. When he got out, the eternal prankster clutched his heart and pretended to collapse.
This would qualify as Baffert being Baffert. Who else would make fun of his own recent heart attack?
What would not qualify as Baffert being Baffert is what he'd done earlier that morning, before he got to the track.
At 5:30 a.m., his buddy, thoroughbred owner Bernie Schiappa, had knocked on his door at the downtown Marriott. A few minutes later, Baffert was in a most unusual place – the hotel exercise room cranking on an elliptical machine.
Schiappa, a muscular 67-year-old, was going hard on the machine next to him on level five. The hypercompetitive Baffert wanted to keep up, but Schiappa urged him to take it easy. After 20 minutes, he pulled Baffert off the machine.
In all his years of bringing talented 3-year-olds to the Derby – 23 horses since 1996 – Baffert never knew where the workout room was at his hotel. Heck, he couldn't even find the exercise equipment in his own house – most of it was covered in clothes.
"I'd never exercised before," Baffert said. "It's sort of a blessing in disguise. I was turning into an old man."
After their workout, he and Schiappa ate an oatmeal breakfast before reporting to Churchill Downs. There, Baffert was greeted with some hesitancy – "People think they're looking at the ghost of Bob Baffert," he said – but then showered with affection.
Visitors to the barn say how happy they are to see him. One after another, women ask to get their picture taken with him. When he goes to the rail to watch his horses gallop, fellow trainers stop to say hello.
"Bob," called Larry Jones from horseback, "how you feeling?"
"Good," Baffert quipped. "I'm going to start galloping soon."
D. Wayne Lukas, the only trainer alive with more Derby wins than Baffert (four to three), chuckled.
"You do that and they'll turn the horn on," Lukas said, referring to the signal for an injured horse.
In addition to the new exercise regimen, there is a new diet. Baffert said that when he went to a Louisville restaurant he frequents, the waitress asked if he wanted the usual bone-in steak. His answer: "How about bone-in chicken?"
Schiappa estimates that Baffert drank 10 Diet Cokes a day before his heart attack.
"Since then, I don't think he's even finished one in a day," Schiappa said. "He's doing the right thing."
Among the morning visitors to the Baffert barn in the run-up to the Derby was Bodemeister's owner, Ahmed Zayat. A gregarious native of Egypt, Zayat has the money to buy horses in bulk – 13 of his 3-year-olds were nominated for the 2012 Triple Crown races, more than any other owner. After finishing second in 2009 and 2011, he is chasing his first Derby victory.
Bodemeister presents a great opportunity. But beyond his excitement for the horse, Zayat is even more excited to see Baffert hale and hearty.
"When I see him I give him a huge hug," Zayat said. "Like, 'Don't you ever do that to me again.' "
Zayat has been around Baffert enough to know what makes him tick. He knows that beneath the wise-cracking exterior is a man who stresses nonstop about his horses. Baffert is, after all, the first trainer who used a walkie-talkie system with his exercise riders to control his horses' workouts down to tenths of a second.
"He's always put on this façade," Zayat said. "Obviously, it catches up with you. He's micromanaging every little thing. … Now, his demeanor is telling me he's happy to have a second chance."
Bodemeister's original name was Braddle Berry. That came from a guy named Brad who used to work in Zayat's thoroughbred operation. When Brad left to work for rival Team Valor, it necessitated a name change for the unraced 2-year-old colt.
Baffert had 7-year-old son Bode with him at the barn that day, while discussing name changes with Zayat for Braddle Berry and other horses. Baffert jokingly said they should name one after his son's nickname, then never thought another minute about it. Naming horses after yourself or family, Baffert says, is a jinx.
But when the paperwork showed up at the barn, Braddle Berry had indeed become Bodemeister. And now the kid has a namesake who might win the Kentucky Derby.
"He's feeling the pressure," Bob said of the youngest of his five children (four from a previous marriage).
The question is how much pressure Baffert will feel Saturday. If the race unfolds as most have predicted, the swift Bodemeister should be on the lead turning for home. But will he be able to hold it on the withering Churchill Downs stretch?
Baffert has in the past described the powerful rush of emotions that come with seeing your horse in the lead in the final furlongs of the Kentucky Derby. This year it seems a legitimate concern: Can his heart take it?
"He'll be OK," Schiappa said. "He'll be fine. That's why he's working out, to be ready."
Baffert usually is a yeller at that stage of a big race – exhorting his horses home. But he says he's adopted a new technique since the drama in Dubai.
"Come on, boy," he'll say in a quiet voice. "Come on, boy."
There is a postscript to the story of the first time horse racing tried to kill Bob Baffert.
After his misadventures as a jockey, Baffert tried his hand at training some of his family's homebred quarterhorses. He wasn't successful. He finally quit the business and became a substitute teacher.
But that school year wasn't very rewarding either, so Baffert found himself called back to the race track. A Native American from Wyoming named Ray Yeigh asked him if he would train 20 horses for him.
One of them was Jet Meyer – the animal that nearly killed Baffert.
Baffert took over the stable and got his first stakes win that September in the Rillito Derby. The winner? Jet Meyer.
As the saying goes, that which doesn't kill a man makes him stronger. Bob Baffert has lived that cliché. Twice.
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