Bob Baffert is the most recognizable man in horse racing. With his signature silver hair, sunglasses and smile, the 59-year-old is the face of the sport of kings.
The Hall of Fame trainer has won the Kentucky Derby three times (1997, 1998, 2002), the Preakness Stakes five times (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2010) and the Belmont Stakes once (2001) to lock up the career Triple Crown.
A large part of Baffert’s legend stems from his near misses in the sport’s ongoing quest for the first Triple Crown-winning horse since 1978. Baffert has won two of the three legs of the Triple Crown on four separate occasions — winning both the Derby and Preakness in consecutive years with Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), taking the Preakness and Belmont with Point Given in 2001, and earning the Derby and Preakness with War Emblem in 2002.
Recently, shockwaves were sent through the racing community when news broke that Baffert had suffered a heart attack on March 26 while in Dubai preparing for the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Baffert had a total of three stents placed in two arteries but was said to be in good spirits following the surgery.
The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, visited Baffert in the hospital. One of the world’s foremost investors in racehorses, Sheikh Mohammed — who won the 2006 Preakness Stakes with Bernardini and has Triple Crown aspirations this season with Alpha — has worked closely with Baffert over the years and guaranteed the finest care for his friend and business associate.
“When you have Sheik Mo come visit you … this is when you know you are being well taken care of,” joked the affable Baffert, in a 13-second cell phone video taken from his hospital bed.
This season, Baffert has a handful of horses primed to contend in the Triple Crown, with Bodemeister and Liaison making the field of 20 in the Kentucky Derby. Health permitting, Baffert will bring his usual swagger to the paddock and track. Regardless, Baffert’s shadow will continue to loom large over the sport.
--By Nathan Rush