Trainer Bob Baffert woke up at 5 a.m. Sunday, much earlier than he had gotten up in the last 90 days. He wanted to return to a job he had enjoyed and excelled at for more than four decades.
He thought about getting up earlier but dismissed the thought.
“I think I’m going to get in there at 12:01 a.m. and go to the barn and start hitting the marks,” he said with a laugh as he sat in box 227 in the Santa Anita coffee shop and looked at his first horses since was watching training. a three-month suspension after a positive drug test on Medina Spirit in last year’s Kentucky Derby.
A few people were there to see the familiar head of white hair. Trainers John Sadler and Tim Yakteen were there as usual, as was jockey Mike Smith and a rotating cast of well-wishers. Yakteen even brought a box of donuts, which were sitting there when Baffert arrived around 6:30. Baffert’s wife, Jill, arrived for her first day back at work.
“It feels like the first day of school,” Baffert said.
When he arrived at his barn, the first person he saw was his longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes.
“He came over and gave me a big ole hug,” Baffert, 69, said. “He said, ‘Thank God, you’re back.’ “I haven’t spoken to Jimmy since I left. Our whole barn is like a family, I’ve known them all for a long time.”
Depending on who you talk to, Baffert is either likable or great, with more in the former category than the latter. He has become a target of animal rights activists, particularly with PETA calling for his removal from the Hall of Fame. It is because of his reputation that he is a particularly valuable target. It is a name that non-racial people know.
It will take several days for Baffert’s barne to return to normal. When he was suspended for 90 days by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which is respected in all states, the sign on his barn had to be taken down, plus his office cleared of personal belongings.
“There should have been no sign of Bob Baffert,” the trainer said.
It wasn’t so hard on the horses that Baffert transferred most of them to Sean McCarthy, who just moved to the same place and took over most of Baffert’s staff. McCarthy’s wife, Kim, is Baffert’s office manager, so everyone knew all the players. Four of Baffert’s better horses were transferred to Yakteen, his former assistant, two of which qualified for the Kentucky Derby and one for the Preakness.
“They did a great job,” Baffert said of his relief trainers. “They came in and won. it was difficult. I was proud of them for how they held together. And most of my clients, they stuck with me.
“I lost some horses. Some owners are still waiting [to see what happens]. I lost [2-year-old Eclipse winner] Corniche,” who went to Todd Pletcher’s barn. “It hurts. All in all, I have a great group of owners. Hang in there with me, they know the truth and the facts.”
The truth and facts will ultimately be decided through the prosecution. Baffert is now banned from Churchill Downs until after next year’s Kentucky Derby. He was also barred from competing in New York until January, even though he had no violations in the state in the nearly three decades he raced there. There are many pending lawsuits and hearings, including the reinstatement of Medina Spirit as the winner of the Kentucky Derby. Kolber was removed from the title by KHRC. He died of a heart attack in December. He could not determine the exact cause of death.
The problems started when Baffert was dealt with four medication violations in a young year. Two were in Arkansas, the result of contamination, something the trainer has no idea about. One was in California and the other in Kentucky. Baffert had explanations for all of them, but all of them painted a troubling picture.
Then came the Kentucky Derby, which Baffert won by a length over Medina Spirit. A week later, word spread that the colt had tested positive for a legal drug that is not allowed on race day.
“When they hit me, I knew my life was going to change,” Baffert said. “We knew that day. I was at a point in my life where I had just won my seventh Derby and I was just buying a boat. And then this happened.”
Baffert went on the attack, vehemently denying there could have been a failed attempt. It’s a move he now questions.
“If I had to do something different, I wouldn’t have done a press conference,” Baffert said. “But he was out and [the media] was waiting … I was trying to prevent it. I was convinced after talking to my vets [the positive] it was not possible. Then 48 hours later their head popped out, watch out for them [ointment] Automax.”
Baffert’s legal team contended that Medina Spirit was treated with an ointment containing betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory, to control a rash on the horse’s hindquarters. The team’s belief is that the rule that prohibits a positive test of betamethasone on the day of the competition is only used when the drug is injected, the usual application, not in the oil.
“When they went into the barn to shake it [as part of the investigation]it was right there in the kid’s brush pocket, but they didn’t see it because they weren’t looking for it,” Baffert said. “I wish they would have seen it, because it was right there.”
Baffert’s miscalculation was on Fox News saying he was a victim of “cancellation culture,” a political phrase.
“I was talking to somebody at Churchill Downs and I said they canceled me,” Baffert said. “That’s exactly what I wanted to say. I should have said it. Someone very important, and I won’t say who, told me, ‘You can think, but you can’t say.’ “
Baffert was eventually suspended for 90 days. Suspensions are usually granted if a trainer appeals, which Baffert did. However, KHRC refused to stay and Baffert was forced to accept the suspension.
Jill Baffert said, “I thought he would spend the first half, with the Derby and other big races.” “But I thought halfway through he was going to get angry, and he did. Forty-five days is a long time to be away from work, and then you realize you’ve got another 45 to go.”
The trainer said he didn’t watch much racing while he was away, in part because he didn’t know when his horses were running.
“My phone was silent, no one called me,” Bob Baffert said. “It was all about Sean, Jimmy and Tim. Once in a while we’d watch a race, but usually not much. I just didn’t let the situation bother me. … It was best for me to just watch.”
His wife took on a role he calls “Bobby-sitting.”
“He’s a glass-half-full kind of guy,” Jill Baffert said. “And that helped his success in the race. He’s a very optimistic person. There were moments [these past months] that I was sad, and angry and hurt. He elevated me in many ways.”
Bob Baffert bids his time. He spent time around the Kentucky Derby in Arizona visiting his brother and some owners. He watched the Belmont Stakes at Chileno Bay in Cabo San Lucas, where he took his entire family for six days.
“We were in the club [at the resort] and nobody knew who I was,” Baffert said. “And then my picture came on TV and people looked around and said, ‘Is that you? Yes, it’s me.’ “
He also attended some sales in Florida and spent time before the suspension ended in Tennessee visiting his wife’s family. He tied on a trip to Kentucky, where he thought the appeal hearing would be held on the Spirit of Medina. But it was postponed until August 22.
“With the adjournment of the session, we went and saw it [Triple Crown winners] American Pharoah and Justify,” Baffert said. “We went to Old Friends [retirement farm] and saw Silver Charm and Game on Dude. It was really nice. They do a fantastic job. We also saw Pharaoh’s mother.”
He also visited the tomb of the Spirit of Medina, where his wife laid a wreath of roses.
Baffert may return to racing next week at Los Alamitos. He keeps about 40 horses at Santa Anita and 45 or so at Los Alamitos, mostly younger horses. Then it will be down to Del Mar for the summer meeting.
Baffert says he’s looking forward, not back.
“This game will make you bitter if you let it,” he said. “You hit it, you lose it and you just go. It’s water under the bridge and you can’t let it bother you. We fought a good fight, but we didn’t win.
“We’ll be back.”