Racing: Baffert's days as a cowboy all in the past

BREEDERS' CUP America's top trainer holds court on his progress from a chicken ranch to cattle drives and then sudden fame with racehorses
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS, again, an audience with Bob Baffert outside barn No 8 here yesterday. Cameras rolled, tape recorders whirred and pens scribbled as America's first trainer did his stuff. These days they come to him.

It was only seven years ago, and the last time the Breeders' Cup was held at Gulfstream Park, that Baffert was virtually nothing, a man looking for success and publicity. He was, according to his own florid words, "a media whoremonger". But then Thirty Slews won the Sprint and the world changed. Baffert began to conquer it.

This year, old snowy hair has saddled almost 150 winners and collected about $15 million in purses. If his eight horses perform as expected in the Breeders' Cup tomorrow he will have enjoyed the most successful season in the history of racing. The attention will keep coming and he will keep enjoying it.

"It seems like I've been talking for hours," he said in an interview between interviews this week. "I've talked to the foreign press and I've even done an interview with Julie Crone [the ex-jockey now a television reporter]. I think it was for the Cartoon Network."

It is all a beautiful story for those round these parts, proof that the American dream is more than that. Bob Baffert is from Nogales, Arizona, on the Mexican border, a windy place in the high desert, 4,000ft above sea level. He was brought up in a ranch house built of mud bricks and without electricity. He used to sell his father's eggs as a schoolboy. "It was through the chickens that I learned how to relate to people and make good business deals," he says.

Papa Baffert also kept Aberdeen Angus cattle and, crucially, horses. His boy was riding by the age of five and, at 10, he was helping to take 3,000 head of cattle on three-day drives. Out on the trail, Baffert used to ask his Mexican colleagues what they wiped themselves with after a poop. They suggested rocks. "So I held it in for three days," he says.

Baffert was also a rider in match races after his father picked him up from school. There came with this sport illegal betting on 300-yard quarter horse races. For a long time they were the only horses he knew.

Here there begins spooky similarity between Baffert and D Wayne Lukas, his deadliest of rivals. Both were introduced to racing via the fast horses, both have been teachers and both have an outrageous gift for self-promotion.

Baffert once won a stakes race on Halloween night at Los Alamitos in New Mexico and arrived in the winners' circle with a pumpkin on his head. On Fox TV's Hollywood Gold Cup telecast earlier this year, he turned up dressed as Austin Powers. Dick Hern never used to do these things.

But being a jester is not enough and Baffert has also showed there is plenty of the monarch about him in horseracing. He is known to work his staff cruelly (as well as himself) and admits he is so consumed by staying at the top he has been less than the perfect father to his four children. He may regret their rearing but he cannot regret the results.

Last year he became the first trainer to collect the first two legs of the Triple Crown in consecutive years. Real Quiet, who was given the sobriquet "The Fish" by connections, followed Silver Charm as the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Their trainer is now acknowledged as the master. "Although I always wanted to be the best I never dreamed of getting to where I am now," he says. "I was just some kid from Arizona who couldn't even put a halter on a horse. To dream of attaining what I have would be like someone dreaming of becoming President."

It is Baffert's proudest thought that he has done this all himself. No- one has taught him. He revels in making mistakes and then correcting them himself.

Another of world racing's great ra-ra men hopes to do the same tomorrow. Frankie Dettori, who beat Swain to destruction in the Classic at Churchill Downs 12 months ago, came before us a penitent figure yesterday. He still had on his body armour just in case any of the press corps had backed poor Swain last year. Frankie insists it will not happen again.

"I did get excited last year and I made a mistake," he said. "The only guy who was nice to me afterwards was Sheikh Mohammed, who rang me the next day and told me to kick on and forget it. But it took me six months to get over it because I had all the winter to think. I am stronger for that and I am here to prove it."

Asked about the going, Dettori said: "I'd say the turf is good, good to firm by English standards. I'm surprised. People told me what rain we'd had, but it's getting quick. If we get no rain it will be very fast."