On Saturday afternoon at Keeneland, amid the tall standing trees placed elegantly around each of the roundabout saddling rings built for two, stood America’s most-visible trainer, Bob Baffert. Though masked because of COVID, you could tell he fluctuated somewhere between that serious demeanor and that customary wry smile of his. He was preparing to saddle his “quirky” 3-yr-old kid, Authentic. The firecracker of a colt was about to make his way to what he believed was his personal playground, known to the rest of us as the Main Track, where the Breeders’ Cup Classic was set to run.
Baffert is seemingly always impeccably dressed, looking like he stepped out of an expertly tailored shop just off Rodeo Drive. His sunglasses perched just so on his nose, and his wavy white hair combed but uncombed, ready to have a hand run through it for adjustment. Normally, he sports a colorful tie, along with a matching pocket handkerchief, up against a white starched shirt. A two-buttoned blazer conforms perfectly about his shoulders, and as a habit, he pokes a hand in a pocket when he gives interviews.
When he watches one of his horses run, it is usually somewhere removed from the track. His posture includes arms folded, as he watches for twitches or subtle moves in his animals that can clue him into the result. Baffert appears as a folksy connoisseur. If he were a sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant, he would put you at ease with his demeanor, despite a daunting list of selections.
At this moment, Baffert was taking a question from NBC’s Kenny Rice, a fixture over the years on their horse racing coverage, who has interviewed the trainer many times. The reporter was asking Baffert about a recent statement his barn issued concerning their standards and practices. Baffert does not use cue cards, nor in interviews does he speak in a prepared way. Rather, his approach is off-the-cuff; it works for him. Answering Rice’s question, Baffert said he thought he “ran a tight ship, but we are going to run a tighter ship.” He went on to say, “I want an extra layer of protection because what we have gone through has been pretty difficult.”
The difficulty he is referencing is part of a larger story for Baffert this year. His road in 2020 comprised a series of ebbs and flows professionally. At one point, he seemed to hold a stacked deck of 3-yr-olds on his bench that would vie for supremacy during the Triple Crown Series. Then in a sudden turn of events, news broke that the California Horse Racing Board was considering removing Justify, Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown winner, disqualifying him from that win in the Santa Anita Derby. At the heart of the issue is the post-race finding of a trace amount of scopolamine, which is an environmental contaminant.
Back then the substance was listed in California regulations as requiring automatic disqualification. Back in 2018, a hearing determined that it was an accident and should not impact the outcome of the race. Still, when the public learned that the results were not discussed openly before Justify ran in the Kentucky Derby, critics and followers of the sport guffawed that Baffert had received special treatment, and that this was another example of coverups. Now the hearings have been reopened, and a result is pending. In the meantime, Justify, is spending his days at stud in Kentucky.
Those findings, plus others against Baffert plagued the rest of his 2020. Two horses that he sent to the cleaved Arkansas Derby in early May, Charlatan and Nadal, both won their individual races. Though Baffert did not attend, he has also had a victory on the undercard with Gamine. It looked to be a banner day. Then the story broke that Charlatan and Gamine both tested positive for lidocaine, a substance that was somehow transferred to both runners by Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant, from an older injury he suffered back in 2017. Whatever the circumstances, the Arkansas Racing Commission handed down a 15-day suspension for Baffert, an ugly mark in a year already marred by COVID-19.
Coming into the Kentucky Derby, after such a rough summer, Baffert took criticism that his replacements for that race, Authentic and Thousand Words, would not be up to the distance in that race. Before they entered the paddock at Churchill, Gamine, a heavy favorite, finished 3rd in the Kentucky Oaks. It was disappointing. Then, as many know, a rollercoaster took Team Baffert down to the lowest level when Thousand Words flipped over on Jimmy Barnes, injuring him, and then Authentic ran out of his shoes for the victory. He was not done there though, he reminded Baffert how difficult 2020 could be, when he knocked the conditioner to the ground. He must have been too keyed up that he could not run some more. Aviators went flying, and Baffert’s signature suit jacket was roughed up. This was only early September.
After the Kentucky Oaks, Gamine, who had not been at her best, tested positive for betamethasone, another illegal substance. Results are pending. Compounding these events, the California Horse Racing Board officials have not yet ruled on the dextrophan overage that was found in a Baffert trainee postrace. And…the hits just seemed to keep coming… In the meantime, Authentic ran a thrilling race in the Preakness against the filly, Swiss Skydiver, just coming up short at the wire. It was heart-breaking, but still a game effort.
Riding into Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup, Baffert hoped that Gamine could rebound in the Filly & Mare Sprint, which she did in amazing fashion, setting the track record. Authentic followed with a resounding win in the Classic giving Baffert and his team a set of rewarding victories. The emotional Baffert knew that this might be Authentic’s last race, as Spendthrift Farms, planned to decide to keep running him or have the Derby-Classic Champion retire to the breeding shed. We learned earlier this week that it would be the latter.
Bob Baffert’s 2020 continues to be short on ease and long on complexity. That is the way it goes for America’s most well-known trainer. The manifesto of “To-Dos” he just issued looks to be chock full of changes. We will have to see if they make a difference in both the short-term and in the long-term. As Baffert contests allegations of impropriety, his very reputation is at stake. That is certainly important to him, as are his Thoroughbreds. Despite the major victories this year, he tied the record for Derby wins for instance; all that will not matter if he does not put his house in order. He knows this.
When you are steering your ship, whether a novice or the most experienced sailor, there are always unexpected events that can come your way. The question for Baffert is not about his training prowess, his barn, or his ability in the Kentucky Derby. Those truths are intransigent.
Rather, it is a much deeper one, and I would put it like this…
You have been humbled this year Mr. Baffert, but will you be humble?