08/12/2009 11:00PM

Beneath comic facade, a serious horseman

Email
Barbara D. Livingston
Bob Baffert came along when Charlie Whittingham and Woody Stephens were near the end of their runs and the landscape was dominated by Wayne Lukas (right).

The first time Bob Baffert drew a large amount of national attention was Kentucky Derby week of 1996, when he took Bob and Barbara Walter's Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier to Churchill Downs for the big show. Baffert and Cavonnier were at one end of the barn. Champion Unbridled's Song and Jim Ryerson were at the other. While Ryerson conducted grim press conferences that mainly dealt with his colt's cracked hoof, Baffert babbled on like a kid at Christmas, lightening the mood. His only comment about Unbridled's Song was a classic movie reference: "The first time I saw him, I said to my guys, 'I think we're gonna need a bigger boat.' "

Not having done a Derby before, Baffert was not sure what it took. Cavonnier, as it turned out, lost the race to Grindstone by less than any horse in the Derby's photo-finish history, providing his trainer with all he needed to know. Baffert won the next two runnings with Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

And on Friday he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

It wasn't quite as simple as that, but almost. Gliding through life on a quip and a shock of white hair, Baffert has made an art form of taking his work seriously, and himself not. He may have put away the pumpkin head he once wore in the Los Alamitos winner's circle on Halloween during his Quarter Horse days. But even at 56, the scamp in Baffert is never far beneath even the most respectable appearance he can muster. He is and will always be, in the words of Barbara Walter, "Peck's Bad Boy."

Hall of Fame trainers come in all shapes and sizes. To compare Baffert to Allen Jerkens, Ben Jones, Tom Smith, or Max Hirsch is unfair. They're not as funny. (Well, maybe Jerkens, if you get him to do his Art Carney impression.)

But timing, being everything, worked miracles for Baffert. When he came along, the entertaining icons like Charlie Whittingham and Woody Stephens were nearing the end of their remarkable runs. The landscape was dominated by Wayne Lukas, with his white-collar, corporate profile and biting boardroom sense of humor. Baffert wasn't just a breath of fresh air. He was a gleeful whoopee cushion.

Of course, racing is not all fun and games. Somehow, Baffert was able to park the wisecracks long enough to impress a lot of people with a lot of money to buy fast horses and give them to him to train. You don't do that with talk-show banter. You do that with results, and by winning some of the biggest races in the world, many of them more than once. Apart from Baffert's eight titles in Triple Crown events and seven Breeders' Cup victories, he is the only American trainer to have won the Dubai World Cup more than once.

Baffert will be the 78th flat trainer to join the Hall of Fame (with the induction Friday of Janet Elliot, there will be nine trainers from the steeplechase world). No one alive has been a Hall of Famer longer than John Nerud, who was inducted in 1972, one year after his most famous horse, Dr. Fager. Later, he was joined by Gallant Man and Ta Wee.

Nerud, bearing down on 97 next February, was asked what he thought of Baffert joining the club.

"He deserves it, yes," Nerud said. "He scratched around the bushes and made his way, same as Lukas did, and same as I did. We started there, doing whatever we could do to get going."

Baffert is from the Arizona border town of Nogales. Like Nerud, of Minatere, Neb., as well as Wisconsin's Lukas, South Dakotan Bill Mott, and Texan Carl Nafzger, there is a special branch of Hall of Fame trainers that emerged from the backroads and county fairs of America's racing heartland. They were born a long way from Kentucky, nowhere near a coastline, and certainly not to the game. Their fathers were farmers, ranchers, hard-working vets. Nerud was asked how a fellow gets from Minatere or Nogales to that hallowed Hall on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs.

"You have to have a good work ethic," Nerud said. "That's the first thing. I don't know Baffert that well - he's a good PR man in his own right, and he's marketed himself with that sense of humor. But I know he thinks about horses all the time. That's what you have to do.

"Being a horse trainer is a grinding, difficult position," Nerud added. "It can chew you up, and you have to be completely dedicated. There's no other way to be a horse trainer if you want to be a good one."

Two years ago, Baffert watched Silver Charm enter the Hall. On Friday, he will be joined in this year's class by the Mike Pegram-owned Silverbulletday, trained by Baffert to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Alabama. It was Pegram who got Baffert into the Thoroughbred business.

Most of all, though, Baffert said the Hall of Fame induction will be special because his father, Bill, will be front and center Friday morning in a packed Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion to share the moment

"I wish I could have had my father there, but I couldn't," Nerud said. "We had the ceremony in one little room back then. I said it was a great honor, and I was privileged, on this day in my life, to be joining the Hall of Fame. I said I traveled all over the United States and wore out two or three cars. In Boston I found a wonderful wife, and along the road I found some horses who could run. We had a little drink after that - one glass was about all - then I had to go to work."