By Steve Rivera –
Bob Baffert Triple Crown Winner 2015
Days before Nogales native and University of Arizona alum Bob Baffert set the horse racing industry ablaze and fans aflutter, he was brought nearly to tears in an interview with ESPN when he spoke about American Pharaoh.
Deep down, he was more than aware the horse – an equine of a generation and perhaps a lifetime – had him on the threshold of doing what no other horse/trainer had done in 37 years: Win the Triple Crown. It’s the equivalent of horse racing’s lottery.
It’s not that Baffert didn’t have chances with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). All failed.
Fast forward – emphasis on fast – to 2015 and Baffert has the elusive and coveted Triple Crown. The horse racing gods have, well, turned Baffert into a horse racing god.
Just days after, he told the media the thought of winning the Triple Crown hadn’t sunk in yet but that it “was spiritual and emotional.”
“The roar, the roar was insane,” Baffert told the media a day after history was made. “It’s just something that I’ll always remember – the roar of the crowd.”
How could he not? There were more than 90,000 fans at Belmont with millions of people cheering all over the United States – especially Tucson and Nogales, where Baffert was born and raised. He said he’s heard from “everybody I ever grew up with.”
“We watched from home, and (all of Nogales) knew how exciting it was to be part of the race,” said Alexis Kramer, PR specialist for the Nogales-Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce. “It was an uplift to the community to have a trainer who is widely successful.”
The roar also was heard at Rillito Race Track, where more than 800 fans joined for what turned out to be celebration.
“It was so much fun, the whole building was shaking when the race was going on,” said Jaye Wells, president of the Rillito Park Foundation. “The clubhouse was as jammed as it’s ever been.” More than $35,000 was wagered, a record day for the park.
Many were there to witness horse racing history via Baffert, the white-haired, dark-glasses-wearing man of the moment in the sports world.
It’s not like Baffert has been an overnight success. He’s been one of the premier horse trainers – whisperers? – over the last 20 years. He’s won more than 2,500 races since 1991 when he officially switched from training quarter horses to thoroughbreds. Baffert, 62, has won three Eclipse Awards and now 12 Triple Crown races in two decades. Then there’s the prestigious Breeder’s Cup champions he’s trained through the years.
All pale to winning the Triple Crown.
“It’s super that he did it,” said Karl Watson, a local car dealer and horse owner. “He’s very deserving. If there was ever a guy who could have done it, it was Bobby.”
And it happened just three years removed from his near fatal heart attack and the passing of his parents in the last few years.
Baffert said he couldn’t help but think his parents – Bill and Ellie – where with him at the Belmont.
“I’m very proud of him,” said older brother, Bill. “My parents would be prouder. They realized how difficult it is to win the race. I always thought he would win it. He’s that good and has always been that good of a horseman.”
Paul Weitman, a Tucson car dealer and a horse owner, knows firsthand how good Baffert is. Baffert is his trainer and has won millions for the trio Mike Pegram, Watson and Weitman.
One horse – Lookin At Lucky – was the toast of the racing world in 2010 when he was the betting favorite in the Derby, but failed to win. Two weeks later, he won the Preakness.
“It means everything to him,” Weitman said. “To win the Triple Crown is every trainer’s goal. I know it was Bobby’s goal. When you go after it three times and you don’t get it, it feels like you’re snake-bitten to get that close. But winning it is the biggest achievement a trainer can have. It’s like winning a national championship in basketball or college football. It might be even better.”
That coming from a man who knows how big and important success in college athletics is. Along with Pegram and Watson, he’s made Arizona athletics noticeable on the track by naming some of his quality horses after Arizona connections. There is Candrea (softball coach Mike Candrea), Da Stoops (former football coach Mike Stoops), Lady Regina (Greg Byrne’s wife) and Midnight Lute (for Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson). Midnight Lute was a two-time Breeder’s Cup sprint champion.
Of course, Baffert trained them all.
“If he ever got out of the business, I’d get out,” Watson said. “He’s my guy. I’m a fan and I’ve been so lucky with him. Everybody around him has.”
It was Bill and Bobby Baffert who invited Weitman to the 1996 Kentucky Derby. Although Baffert’s horse, Cavonnier finished second, Weitman got hooked.
“You’ve heard of Derby fever? Well, I caught it,” Weitman said. “When we got back to Tucson I told him ‘get me a horse.’”
A few thoroughbreds and millions of dollars in winnings later, Baffert has made the Car Boys – what he calls Watson and Weitman – bigtime horse owners.
He’s also brought the UA great exposure. Baffert, on the road to the Triple Crown, often wore his Arizona baseball cap. He’s long been a fan of the Wildcats.
“We are extremely proud of Bob and all his accomplishments,” UA athletic director Greg Byrne said. “He already had an incredible career and now the topper is the Triple Crown. He will go down in history as one of the great University of Arizona alums.”
It all started at the UA’s Race Track Industry Program, or RTIP, where Baffert and fellow world-renowned trainer Todd Pletcher are graduates. The program is well respected by many in the industry – yet making news because few know about it. It’s in the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The program, with about 700 alums, got plenty of attention in the days leading up to the Belmont.
“All the news is great because it gave me a chance to talk about the number of people who have come out of the program,” said Doug Reed, RTIP program coordinator. “They are all over the world in a number of different types of capacities. It’s not just two superstars in Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.”