LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Bob Baffert has won almost every major horse race in America, and some whoppers overseas. The 61-year-old has nine Triple Crown trophies, and he's won more money per start than any trainer in American history at $18,357. He's a millionaire and a Hall of Famer and one of the few thoroughbred racing figures who is recognizable to mainstream sports fans.
He is here at Churchill Downs with his 24th and 25th Kentucky Derby starters, Hoppertunity and Chitu. He has become as much a part of the first Saturday in May as the Twin Spires and $9 paddock beers.
But if you want to reacquaint Bob Baffert with the wide-eyed, wisecracking Westerner who first beheld the spectacle, splendor and sadness of the Kentucky Derby, it's pretty easy.
Just ask him about 1996.
On a bleak, storm-soaked Monday at Churchill Downs, Baffert launched a personal nostalgia tour with just the slightest prodding. It provided insight into the oft-indescribable emotion the Derby wrenches out of its participants – a feeling that never leaves them once it has invaded their bodies.
The 1996 race was Baffert's first Derby, when he arrived with a gritty gelding named Cavonnier and jockey Chris McCarron. Cavonnier would take Baffert to the emotional pinnacle of his profession – for a few minutes. Then he tumbled from that pinnacle, landing in depression and leaving a void that turned into an obsession.
But before discussing the two minutes that changed Baffert's life, you have to know the backstory. He grew up on a ranch in Nogales, Arizona, nearby the Mexican border. The family had quarter horses and cattle, and they always watched the Derby on TV.
The problem was where. The family television was usually out, because the cows would knock over the antenna in the adjacent field. So on Derby Day they would usually trudge across the road to an uncle's house for the big race. He remembers the surprise of Canonero II winning in 1971, the excellence of Seattle Slew in '77, the speed of Spectacular Bid in '79.
It was exciting to watch, but impossible to envision having a part in it.
"It was something that I never dreamt of being here – I never thought I would even be a trainer," Baffert said. "To sit back and think of everything that's gone on, I never would have imagined it. It's my life. I've been here so many years now."
Bob was a jockey as youngster – and not a good one. He rode quarter horses with little conviction and less courage.
"When a trainer tells you, 'You couldn't ride a hog in a telephone booth,' that's when it's time to quit," Baffert said. "That's what I was told."
So he became a trainer instead – first quarter horses and then thoroughbreds. He started to win some races and make a name for himself on the elite Southern California circuit, and won his first major national race in 1992 – the Breeders Cup Sprint with Thirty Slews.
In the fall of '95, owner Robert Walter moved a 2-year-old named Cavonnier into Baffert's barn. He was a game and consistent horse, and his victory in the El Camino Real Derby in January '96 stamped him as a decent Kentucky Derby prospect. But it wasn't until April, when he won the Santa Anita at 10-1 odds, that the ticket was punched.
Baffert got to Churchill a few weeks before the race with Cavonnier and another horse, Semoran, and could hardly wait for the hoopla to kick in. He compared it to Halloween – he'd sit in the office of Barn 33 and look out the window, waiting for trick-or-treaters (reporters) to come to his door.
Mostly they walked past him to get to the barn of the favorite, Unbridled's Song, which was next door. The hype surrounding that horse was huge. The stallion's heavy-handed connections actually gave trainer Jim Ryerson a podium and a microphone for his daily press interactions – an experience that compounded the taciturn Ryerson's stress and misery.
"I remember joking [with reporters headed to Unbridled's Song's barn], 'Hey guys you can come over here and I'll talk to you,' " Baffert said. "It was a lot of fun."
With expectations modest but his horse training well, Baffert was having a ball. He was confident of a good showing, but leading up to the race he was blissfully unaware of the impact the two minutes from 5:34 and 5:36 p.m. on May 4, 1996, would have on him.
"If I would have run fourth I would have been so happy," Baffert said. "But then when [Cavonnier] made the lead about the eighth pole, I remember – I went numb. I was like, 'Oh. My. God. He's in the lead.' I could not believe the feeling."
Baffert took an instant to look around and taste the grandeur – an American tradition more than a century old, a crowd of more than 140,000 roaring. And his very first Derby horse was a furlong from victory.
The reverie did not last long.
"Then all of a sudden I see this horse coming on the outside and he had the white bridle and I'm like, 'Ohhh, it's a good one,' " Baffert said.
White bridles were worn by the horses of D. Wayne Lukas, the pre-eminent trainer of the day. Lukas had four powerful entries in the race, but the least-heralded of the four, Grindstone, was the one charging down the stretch in pursuit of Cavonnier.
The stretch duel was thrilling but impossible to call with the naked eye – especially from Baffert's sketchy seats in the grandstand. The stewards would have to study a photo finish before declaring an official winner.
"They hit the wire and for an instant I thought he held on and won, and the feeling was just – it was like when I won my first Breeders Cup. But my stomach was cramping from yelling so hard. I was like, 'I won it.'
"I was looking around – and all trainers do it, they start asking, 'What do you think?' Even people you don't know.
"A guy is like, 'You got it, Bob.' And you're like, 'All right!' Then you ask another guy and he's like, 'I don't know, that was pretty close.' Ah, I liked the other guy."
The wife of Cavonnier's owner said she didn't think the horse won. Baffert's heart sank, but he kept his eye on the jockeys – Chris McCarron on Cavonnier and Jerry Bailey on Grindstone.
"I'm watching McCarron and Bailey, looking for some kind of body language," he said. "I'm hoping Chris was going to give it … a smile, and he didn't. … It went on forever. It was a long, long photo. At that point I was willing to split it with [Lukas], whatever."
Finally, Bailey exulted when the result went official. Lukas hugged his assistants in the middle of the track, having just won the third of his four Derbies. Baffert felt his once-soaring emotions tugged violently downward.
"For about five minutes, I knew what it felt like to win the Kentucky Derby," he said. "I take that with me. I felt it. I know what it feels like."
And then he knew what it felt like to not win the Kentucky Derby. About an hour after the race, Baffert was standing on the bricks of the Churchill paddock area, seemingly in shock. It was as if those two minutes totally overwhelmed him.
"That was always the toughest beat of my career," said a man who lost the 1998 Triple Crown by a whisker in the Belmont Stakes. "You think the Triple Crown, but it wasn't. (The '96 Derby loss) was harder, because you think you're never getting back here again."
It had taken so many years just to get here once. Finding another horse good enough to make the field would be hard. Finding one good enough to win it seemed even more remote after that near miss.
Still, Baffert recovered enough to go to dinner at Pat's Steakhouse, a traditional hangout for the horsey set. It was a miserable dinner.
"It felt so, so bad," he said of that night. "For a year it was really depressing."
He didn't know it at the time, but the only thing that would erase that feeling was back in Barn 33 that night. It was a 2-year-old named Silver Charm, and he would be Baffert's ticket to the Derby the next spring.
But just being back on the grounds with Silver Charm was enough to re-engage all the pain of that photo-finish loss the year before. People asked him to go to the Kentucky Derby museum on the front side of Churchill and he refused, knowing that a replay of the '96 Derby would be constantly playing.
Finally, some friends talked him into attending a breakfast at the museum. He finally watched the race.
"I left there even feeling worse," Baffert said. "I thought, 'I have to win this.' "
Silver Charm fulfilled the quest, holding off Captain Bodgit and Free House in another exciting (but not quite as close) stretch run. Baffert had his Derby, and at the winner's party that night in the Derby Museum he watched the '96 replay again.
"I do not have a problem with this video," he said.
A year later Baffert won a second straight Derby, this time with Real Quiet. Then he added a third Derby win in 2002, with 21-1 shot War Emblem. By this time, Baffert admitted, "My hat size started getting bigger."
The sport will humble the greatest champions, though. There have been no more Kentucky Derby wins since, and only one Triple Crown win – the 2010 Preakness. So the appreciation of those dramatic early years at Churchill Downs is only sharpened more.
"This game can be so great and so cruel and you can get so negative – it can get you really negative if you let it," Baffert said. "When you have a good horse, you have to enjoy it. I've had some really good horses get knocked out. … If you get there and get lucky enough, you wish every trainer could feel that.
"Some great trainers never got the opportunity to win the Derby. You feel fortunate when you win it. Sometimes you feel like maybe you're not worthy. But it's sure a lot of fun."