The pain woke him up in the middle of the night. He experienced discomfort on the overseas flight to Dubai, bad indigestion with the feeling that something was pressing on his throat, and those symptoms were still bothering him as well as a throbbing behind the elbow of his left arm. He was sweating and suddenly got sick — Bob Baffert was having a heart attack.
Flash forward 35 days later, the Monday of Kentucky Derby week, and the Hall of Fame trainer is holding court on the backstretch of Churchill Downs. Baffert has a second chance at life as well as a top contender in Bodemeister.
“When I survived, I was very, very lucky. I just feel that I’m on bonus time here,” Baffert said.
Call him Derby royalty. Baffert is undeniably the most influential Kentucky Derby trainer over the past 15 years, winning three times with two seconds, two thirds and a fourth from 21 starters. The Southern California-based horseman always merits respect, saddling either the favorite or second favorite in seven of the 13 years he’s participated, and it all started in 1996 with Cavonnier, who was nailed in the final stride by a nose.
A narrow second-place finish of that nature used to stick with Baffert for days, but the 59-year-old is committed to changing his approach since surviving a serious health scare.
“I used to get upset over little things that I shouldn’t get worried about,” said Baffert, who underwent surgery March 26 to insert stents into two blocked arteries. “When I root for a horse, I went from really cheering them on to a measured ‘Come on boy.’
It will be difficult to remain calm if Bodemeister runs to expectations in the Kentucky Derby.
Bodemeister, who will be either the favorite or second choice in the wagering when the horses break from the Kentucky Derby starting gate, established himself as the horse to beat when romping to a landslide victory in the April 14 Arkansas Derby. That marked the improving colt’s first stakes victory and Bodemeister comes rolling into the Kentucky Derby as a potential beast, a threat to overwhelm foes with raw ability if he can overcome inexperience.
“He’s hasn’t missed a beat since winning the Arkansas Derby, he’s training great at Churchill Downs,” Baffert noted.
The bay son of Empire Maker is perhaps a little wet behind the ears, making a belated career debut in mid-January, but he has a seasoned veteran in his corner with Baffert.
“The doctor said to me, ‘consider yourself a lucky man,’ and I do,” he said. “Every day I’m getting stronger and stronger. I am on a routine, get up at 5:30 and go hit the gym.
“It is really good for me to come out here.”
“I feel better. You know what, my hair quit growing about a month before it,” Baffert says with a grin. “My hair grows pretty fast, and my barber says it has quit growing. I’m thinking ‘Oh no, I can’t get hair plugs.’ But since then it’s growing again and I can tell a big difference.
“People they look at me when I go places, they think they’re looking at the ghost of Bob Baffert.”
Remaining upbeat is important therapeutically.
“It’s all mental a lot of it,” he said. “They keep me on medication, they keep me a little bit mellow. Once in a while you have a little anxiety thinking about it.
“You know they say you have to wake up to smell the roses and I’m actually enjoying it a little bit better. It’s been a little scary, but I’m getting my confidence back.”
Bodemeister races in the silks of Ahmed Zayat, who has finished second in the Kentucky Derby with both Pioneer of the Nile (2009) and Nehro (2011). One of the premiere owners in the sport, Zayat employs multiple trainers and withstood a bitter lawsuit battle with Fifth Third Bank, who tried to place his approximately 200 horses with a receiver in 2010 when they claimed he defaulted on $34 million in loans.
The two sides eventually reached a settlement and Zayat Stables remains a major force in Thoroughbred racing, finishing 2011 as the fifth-leading North American owner by earnings with $3,896,839.
Zayat, who recently sold a minority interest in Bodemeister for an undisclosed amount, is excited about the possibility of winning his first Kentucky Derby.
“It is really unbelievable to be back in this position. I am so pumped,” Zayat said. “I think I have the right trainer and the right horse.”
Bodemeister was named after Baffert’s youngest son, Bode, who in turn is named for decorated snow skier Bode Miller. Miller is a regular visitor to the Baffert barn during Derby week.
“He supposed to be here this week, I think he’s coming in,” Baffert said of his close friend. “He always comes to Louisville and tries to play trainer around the barn.”
Horses are so lightly raced nowadays that an unraced 2-year-old will eventually win the Kentucky Derby – seasoning is not as important to trainers as it once was. Horses used to make plenty of starts and train hard for races. Now, they hardly compete and aren’t pushed hard in their morning preparations.
Bodemeister is an exception – he has drilled two fast workouts since arriving at Churchill Downs about two weeks ago and owns four starts this year, producing a pair of wins and a pair of seconds. Only two other horses in the Kentucky Derby field have made as many starts this year.
Inexperience doesn’t concern Baffert – he is more worried about getting a good trip for his speedy runner.
“He is getting stronger and stronger, and can win if he runs his race,” Baffert said. “With 20 horses, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Racing luck is more important.”
Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom was unable to go out a winner, fading quickly in the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday in his last race before retirement.