Saturday, May 5, 2012
Baffert sees silver lining these days
When Bob Baffert had his heart attack a little over a month ago in Dubai, I sent him a get well text.
He came back with, "Can't have sex for 30 days."
His humor intact and his heart repaired, Baffert got back to work trying to win his fourth Kentucky Derby. A couple weeks after being allowed to live some more, Baffert was blessed further. His horse Bodemeister put on the single-most talked about move in the Derby prep season, when he found a fifth gear in the stretch of the Arkansas Derby and won by nearly 10 lengths.
It was either a one-time adrenaline rush for the horse and the game or we had a superstar on our hands, in Baffert's hands.
I asked him the night before the Derby if he was as confident about Bodemeister as he was in 2001 with Point Given. "I know I have the best horse in the race," he said. Point Given got a little too close to a ridiculous pace and ended up fifth in that Derby, before going on to win the Preakness and the Belmont.
It got ridiculous again Saturday. But this time Baffert's horse wasn't close to the pace. He was setting it. Bodemeister and jockey Mike Smith ran like they were being chased by wild dogs. It was just the 9 horse, Trinniberg. He wasn't really scary at all, folding to finish 17th in the field of 20. Bodemeister ran the half-mile and six furlong fractions just a shade slower than Songandaprayer's record times from 2001.
But by the top of the stretch, when Trinniberg was dropping anchor, it didn't seem to matter. Bodemeister looked like a superstar, conventional times be damned. He opened up on the field and was about to give a guy who almost died six weeks previous something more to live for, the first leg toward the first Triple Crown since 1978. Bodemeister looked that invincible.
Just a couple days ago, for our ESPN.com profiles on the 20 Derby horses, Baffert got philosophical with us. When you almost die on a trip to Dubai for the purpose of making a horse run in a circle, getting philosophical comes with the territory.
Baffert said the experience made him a better person. The way he treats others, the way he treats himself. What it seemed to do most is get him to recognize he needs to let go of things over which he doesn't have control. For instance, he can't control Mike Smith and Bodemeister from believing they were being chased by wild dogs. It was just Trinniberg. Damn Trinniberg. Without that sprinter in this field, maybe Bodemeister would have been able to relax a bit, carve out more reasonable fractions and come home invincible. Instead the pressure really did get to Bodemeister and the SA Derby winner, I'll Have Another, gave trainer Doug O'Neill his first Kentucky Derby win.
Afterward O'Neil mentioned that Baffert had told him when you win a Kentucky Derby there's absolutely no feeling like it.
And now Baffert can explain to O'Neill how when you almost die of a heart attack in Dubai while there to make a horse run in a circle and then almost win another Kentucky Derby six weeks later after your horse has been chased by wild dogs and runs too fast
there's nothing like it.
Before the heart attack, Baffert would have been devastated to lose a Derby this way. He might have had strong words for his jockey -- even if the jockey explained, well, the thing about the wild dogs. Baffert would have second-guessed himself, eaten more bad food quickly and replayed in his mind again and again what could have been.
These days he's taking care of himself better, beginning with his perspective on wins and losses. Even Kentucky Derby wins and losses.
I sent him another text Saturday night: "Second place isn't bad for a guy who wasn't feeling very well a month or so ago."
Baffert said Trinniberg's pressure did him in, but it was without malice. "That's racing," he said. Trinniberg had earned the right to run a mile and then walk the final quarter.
Baffert ended simply: "I'm happy."
Happy no wild dogs can harass his horse any longer. Happy to be second-best on Saturday. Doesn't mean he has lost his ambition. It means his ambition no longer controls him. The trip to Dubai was the worst and best thing that ever happened to him. Bodemeister losing his lead is what happened on one Saturday.