“How about we call Bob Baffert?” In these times of containment, when the races are at a standstill, this is also an opportunity for us to do things that we have never done. Like interviewing one of the living legends of American racing.
By Anne-Louise Echevin
Bob Baffert Mission. Questions written on a sheet, the phone in hand… And the beginner’s stage fright. What an idea ! Call like that, without warning, out of the blue as the Anglo-Saxons say, the living legend of American coaches. The man with two Triple Crowns, five Kentucky Derby, four Eclipse Awards, entered in the US Hall of Fame. Finding yourself like this, phone in hand, wondering if this is really a good idea, if Bob Baffert will have the time and the inclination – races stopped or not – to take thirty minutes of his time for a surprise interview. We have to get started. The phone rings, Bob Baffert picks up. Big inspiration. Presentation, etc. “Do you have about 30 minutes for me please?” Now, or later if you’re busy? Answer: “No problem, we can do the interview right now if you want. »Expiration…
It’s part of the job. It’s actually not that surprising that Bob Baffert answers so easily. It is well known that the man does not refuse an interview, that it is also the price of success and that it is therefore part of the job. This is a very Anglo-Saxon attitude, if not even more developed in the United States. The man with the characteristic silhouette is both a horse and media personality. We probably liked American Pharoah (Pioneer of the Nile) so much because the trainer opened the doors of his barn to everyone for this horse with such an incredible temperament. American Pharoah, beyond the feat of the Triple Crown, was a great adventure which, in the United States at least, transcended the borders of the equestrian world alone.
One day, it’s almost certain, American Pharoah will be in Hollywood. Thanks in part to his trainer: “I think American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory was the most beautiful thing that has happened in horse racing. People followed the races thanks to him. American Pharoah has brought people so much joy. I was shopping and people would stop me and say, “I saw your horse win the Triple Crown, it was amazing, he is so good.” American Pharaoh was a very special horse. He was magical. He was not only an exceptional racehorse, he was incredibly kind. I shared him with the audience, I shared his kindness with people. They could come, touch him, and he accepted it so sweetly. I think he will forever be my favorite horse for all of this. He knew how to win the hearts of all. It was something very moving for me. And I think when you have such a good horse, it’s your responsibility as a trainer to share it. To promote races in this way. Everyone in racing knows that we take care of our horses. People on the outside don’t necessarily realize all the time, all the attention we give to our horses. And we have to promote that, show how beautiful our sport is. This promotion is part of our job. ”
Santa Anita at a standstill. Bob Baffert has most of his horses on the Santa Anita side. The races have been at a standstill since Friday March 27. There must have been races that day, behind closed doors like the days before. But, just before the first test, the order to stop everything was given by the authorities in Los Angeles. Bob Baffert tells us: “I was really surprised when we had to stop running. Oaklawn continues to run and not Santa Anita… Horse races are outdoors and in a place like Santa Anita we are not crowded on top of each other. We had a great scenario in place that allowed us to keep running, and for reasons unknown to us, we were asked to stop everything. In California, decisions vary depending on the counties. In Los Alamitos, very close to here, the Quarter Horses races continue because they depend on another county. I never really understood politics, but what do you think we can do if we don’t have patience. Every week we felt a kind of pressure to keep the races going. But we had a whole bunch of safety protocols in place: temperature measurement, etc.
temperature measurement, etc. In Santa Anita, we had started social distancing long before it was requested by the authorities, we had been proactive on the subject. Some rumors say that anti-racing activists, who have wanted Santa Anita’s skin since the deadly winter of 2019, have come to put their two cents in with the California authorities. Bob Baffert analyzes: “Activists aren’t helping, I guess, but it’s still rumored. ”
Bob Baffert, like all Santa Anita coaches, must take his troubles patiently. Santa Anita belongs to the Stronach group, which is said to be in the midst of negotiations with the Los Angeles authorities to be able to resume shopping as quickly as possible. Bob Baffert must compose: “We are waiting for the green light to run again. But it’s not happening yet! Every day we hope this changes. Most of my horses are in Santa Anita where there is no racing, but I also have a few on the Oaklawn side where they are allowed to run. We can continue training here, there is no problem there. I don’t train them as thoroughly as I usually do. I slowed down for some of them. ”
The United States at the time of Covid-19. In the land of king capitalism, the Covid-19 epidemic is causing a serious health and economic disaster. Even though the US government has implemented a contingency plan, we are a long way from a welfare state and many people, already in dire straits, may not recover. Probably much more than in Europe. The stock market or life: we are no longer in the days of the Wild West, but it remains relevant today. A disastrous situation for the most fragile, which sometimes gives rise to defenses bordering on cynicism, as when the California Homeowners’ Association wrote a press release explaining that around 1,000 Santa Anita employees, no longer working and sometimes being housed on the premises. racetrack, may well join Los Angeles’ already long list of homeless people if the races don’t resume.
Bob Baffert explains the atmosphere in Santa Anita: “The situation is very delicate and, if we can’t get back to it quickly, a lot of the little coaches won’t get over it. We are all hoping for a fairly quick resumption of races. Small owners will be very affected. But bigger owners will certainly suffer this crisis as well: they also lose money, they may buy fewer horses and that would then have consequences for the breeders. If we pick up quickly enough, we should be fine. The next two weeks are decisive. But there are a lot of politicians involved in this type of decision. It all depends on the governors who are certainly waiting for one of them to take the first step before taking the plunge too: “Go on! No, you first! Go on, please!” It’s pretty scary, you just have to hope everyone can get back to normal life. And then we need sports, otherwise we’ll go crazy! I think I have seen all the movies and TV series available, you need sport! ”
Nothing will be the same again. California and Los Angeles are not as affected by the Covid-19 epidemic as New York, where the situation is dire. Despite this, for Bob Baffert, there will be a before and an after: “In terms of the coronavirus, I believe we have not been very affected in California, if you compare to New York. There, you take taxis, you take public transport. In California, we live in our cars, which allows for pretty natural social distancing. There is not this sense of danger, of urgency. That being said, I believe life will never be the same after this. I don’t think I’ll ever shake someone’s hand! This episode is probably going to force us to change the way we do things and, if we do, everything should be fine. So it’s simple: don’t shake hands, check your temperature, wash your hands and don’t touch your face! And everything will go just fine. That said, in France, you kiss each other: that is really not good in the current context! ”
A triple crown turned upside down. The Covid-19 epidemic has undermined the entire classic American program. The Kentucky Derby, which takes place on the first Saturday in May, has been postponed to September 5, 2020. The Belmont Stakes, scheduled for June 6, have been postponed to a date to be defined. The Preakness Stakes have also been postponed to a date to be defined. For Bob Baffert, better a Kentucky Derby in September with the possibility of welcoming the public than a Kentucky Derby behind closed doors … Especially since the unique atmosphere of the Kentucky Derby is also part of the race, testing the mind des 3ans: “It would have been great to be able to run the Kentucky Derby in May under normal conditions. But, behind closed doors, in front of empty stands, I don’t think it would have been good. The Kentucky Derby is an event. You check this box on your calendar to get there. Without an audience, it would have been strange. I think they made the right decision in shifting it. I hope that at the end of June things will get back to normal. ”
The Triple Crown, that challenge he thought was impossible. Bob Baffert does not dream of Triple Crown in 2020, even if he has two very promising foals in his boxes: Nadal and Charlatan: “I don’t know what the 2020 Triple Crown will be like. world, I especially think of being able to really get back to work. ”
The Triple Crown remains the dream of all coaches and owners. The horse that wins it is a legend of racing. Bob Baffert had two horses capable of achieving the feat: American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify (Scat Daddy) in 2018. The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed… In 1978. This shows the difficulty of the challenge: “Before winning the Triple Crown with American Pharoah, I had tried to win it three times [Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002, editor’s note]. I hadn’t made it and I had come to the conclusion that it was impossible! Then I realized you just needed to have an exceptional horse. I love young horses. I love working with the 2 year olds. And the 3 years of course. My whole team is built around the classics, the Derby. I work with amazing clients. I had the chance to work with the best horses in the world: American Pharoahs, Justify and you have to add Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song)… Those three, really, were amazing. As a trainer you are already lucky if in your career you can touch a horse like these. Me, I had three! Imagine! ”
American Pharoah and Justify, so different. Physically, there is not much in common between the whiteless bay American Pharoah and the mighty white-listed chestnut Justify. Before the Triple Crown, their careers had nothing to do with either: American Pharoah was already a champion at 2 years old, while Justify started in February of his 3 years old. What do they have in common? To be above the rest, just like Arrogate was, who did not take part in any Trials Crown events.
Bob Baffert told us: “American Pharoah was a champion at 2 years old. But Justify, if he had been able to run at that age, would have been too. He had a little problem that prevented him from running at 2 years old. Arrogate had a problem at 3 so he fell behind but, if I could have run him earlier, he could also have won a Triple Crown. What Justify did to win a Triple Crown, a hundred days after his competitive debut, is crazy. Crazy, really. Justify is certainly the most beautiful horse I have ever trained: it was a ball of muscle. He was only galloping, he could do 1200m as well as 2000m. American Pharoah and Justify were out of the ordinary: they went so fast, and when you asked them to speed up again, they did. I will never have two horses like them again. These horses are so special, with incredible action. I have a 3yr old by American Pharoah in my boxes called Merneith. She won a maiden at Oaklawn on April 19 and won by ten lengths. She reminded me of her father, she galloped like him. American Pharaoh is going to be a superb stallion I’m sure. ”
Arrogate, achievement and regrets. Arrogate didn’t have the chance to become classic. But the gray from Juddmonte Farms also made racing history, making the Breeders ’Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup triptych. Arrogate has landed over $ 17 million in prize money and is the richest horse of all time. His performance in the Dubai World Cup was extraordinary: Embarrassed at the start, last, he came thick on the last turn to pull up the whole peloton and win by more than two lengths. Doing this on the dirt is a feat in this. On Meydan’s dirt, coming back from behind is almost impossible. For Bob Baffert, this performance remains both a wonderful memory but also an immense regret: “The Dubai World Cup was the most impressive performance achieved by one of my horses. I’m still mad at how I handled the aftermath with Arrogate. I should have given him more time after this Dubai World Cup. I wish I could go back and change that. In Dubai, the race was so hard, they went so fast… He gave so much of himself in this race, it cost him a lot and I blame myself for running it so quickly after. It was never the same after Dubai. This horse should never have lost a race afterwards. ”
And to think that it all started with the Quarter Horses. In the landscape of the American thoroughbred, Bob Baffert remains a character apart. His straightforward demeanor and sense of humor have long stood out in the industry. Man is not from this world. Like Wayne Lukas, it was at the Quarter Horses racing school that he was trained… The one who ran “cowboys horses” in his beginnings over 400m has nevertheless managed to become one of the only two double coaches. Triple Crown winners. Quarter Horses are another world though: “Back then, I loved quarter horses and I didn’t really like thoroughbred racing. I was based in Los Alamitos, not that far from Santa Anita, and I was successful. In fact, thoroughbred racing intimidated me a lot, I don’t know why. But one day I went for it and gave myself three years to see what it was going to be. It’s very different from quarter horses, thoroughbreds. With quarter horses, you don’t really have a lot of work to do. They need to be sharp and they will go for the 400m in competition. You just have to keep them fresh and that’s good. Thoroughbred racing is something else! We have to work hard on the handicaps, the distances which are varied. When I started, I had all of this to learn… And I’m still learning (laughs)! But I won races with the pure ones, I started to improve. The first thoroughbred I bought was called Thirty Slew… And at 4 he won the Breeders ’Cup Sprint. This gives you the dose of confidence you need to tell yourself that we can continue with thoroughbreds. ”
Dirt first and foremost. Bob Baffert is certainly one of the greatest coaches America has ever known. His track record is dizzying and he breathes America… He breathes dirt. Indeed, while Bob Baffert has won the biggest events in his country on this surface, the great American events on turf are not on his list. So one wonders if this is a lack of interest in the specialty or if, unlike a Chad Brown now, he just doesn’t get horses to go on the turf.
Bob Baffert explains: “Honestly, I’ve never really been into grass racing. In the United States, horses are most valuable on dirt. The most popular races are on dirt too. I come from the quarter horse world, where speed is all about. I prefer dirt, this is where the big races take place. And my clients aren’t really interested in turf horses – they want a dirt horse. If you want to give value to a horse, you have to turn to dirt. If you want to reveal a stallion, it’s still much more difficult if you turn to the grass. The best turf horse I have trained came from Europe [FR Tuzla, winner of the Ramona Handicap, editor’s note]. The turf races in Europe are the best in the world, your races are magnificent. If in Europe you started to set up dirt racing then American horses would probably take it all. Much like what happens with our lawn races: your horses are great at it and when they come they win. ”
We will long dream of an American Pharoah on the lawn. Bob Baffert had said in the past that he thought an American Pharoah could have won a big event on turf. What a challenge that would have been! Imagine… Bob Baffert explains: “You have seen that American Pharoah gives good products on the turf as well as on the dirt. I think a horse like Justify will also yield elements that can do well on both surfaces. I think Justify would have been an amazing horse on the grass, with his natural speed. Pharoah would also have been able to do both. I believe horses like this could have done just as well on dirt as they did on turf, for one simple reason: they were just so much above the rest. Arrogate too. They could win anything, no matter the surface. ”
So, will Bob Baffert one day take up the challenge with us? : “I would love to come to Ascot! I’ve been approached by Ascot officials before, but I didn’t have any horses to experiment with. One day, why not! And then I would love to come and win the Arc de Triomphe, your best race! ”
The challenges of American races. Obviously, it’s difficult to speak with the top American trainer without addressing one of the news of American races: the great doping scandal unveiled by the FBI around Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro. The debates around medication in the race. The many challenges to overcome.
On medication, Bob Baffert comments: “The issue of medication on race days is complex. We are racing on dirt: it’s much harder on the horses than racing on grass. On the dirt, it beats from start to finish. On the grass, we come rather to finish. We are limiting medication more and more. The rules vary from racetrack to racetrack. Personally, I always check before traveling, but I limit the medication as much as possible. This year, we have Lasix bans for 2-year-olds being put in place. It begins to disappear, little by little. ”
When the coach addresses the recent doping scandal, there is a certain sadness in his voice: “It makes me feel extremely sick. A horse like American Pharoah gathered people around the races, touched them, and such an event comes and destroys it. It really hurts me. And that gives everyone in sport a bad image. There will always be weeds, in any area. But after having had American Pharoah, after having had Justify, horses which knew how to federate, we had a scandal like this one. The last few months have been horrible and we need to bounce back. “Bounce back, and fight against animalist and anti-racing lobbies which are unleashed:” There are activists for everything! They make a lot of noise. They know how to use social media and sometimes they make things up. It’s hard to fight against them, but they are not that many. But this is the world today … Social media is very powerful. Take care of your horses, show it. Be exemplary. “