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Even as a child, Bob Baffert knew quality horses

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 16: Trainer Bob Baffert

BALTIMORE, MD - MAY 16: Trainer Bob Baffert jokes with the trophy in the winners circle after his horse American Pharoah won the 140th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on May 16, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr

For a trainer, there's no substitute for the knack, and Bob Baffert had it in junior high. It's called "the third eye,'' the uncanny ability to scope out young horses and identify who will be the best runner in the bunch.

His equine intuition surfaced while grooming and galloping the cheap quarter horses his dad, Bill "The Chief" Baffert Sr., raised on his cattle ranch in Nogales, Arizona, a small town near the Mexican border.

"Bobby was a natural,'' his late father said in "Dirt Road to the Derby,'' Baffert's 1999 autobiography written with Steve Haskin. "He broke all my horses, and at 12 or 13, he already had the ability to tell me right away if a horse was good or not.''

Fifty years later, Baffert still has the touch. Jimmy Barnes, his assistant trainer since 1999, marvels at it. "Bob has an eye for a horse,'' Barnes told Newsday. "He can pick out the good ones, and it's so hard to do that at a yearling sale. The training part is easy, you just have to find the horse.''

Just as important is a magnetic personality. In his autobiography, Baffert's late mother, Ellie, said: "Bobby was never depressed or negative about anything. Ever since he was a little kid, he had very high self-esteem, and he learned people skills selling eggs for his father.''

That rare blend propelled a Hall of Fame career that has produced victories in four Kentucky Derbys, six Preaknesses and one Belmont. On June 6, Baffert will have a record fourth opportunity to end the Triple Crown drought when he saddles American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes.

He got lucky with Pharoah, whom he didn't have to pick out of a pack. Owner Ahmed Zayat bred the colt and put him in his barn last year. Baffert, 62, hadn't hoisted a Derby trophy since 2002 with War Emblem, and wondered if he'd ever get a fourth.

"You get to a point in your life, you think maybe it's just not going to happen for me,'' he said. "And then [Zayat] sent me this horse, and I said, 'Wow, here's my chance. Don't mess it up. It's like this is it.'

"Trainers are so fortunate when we get a horse thrown in our lap like this.''

Even after Pharoah ran fifth last August in his debut, Baffert felt sure he was something special. He's 6-for-6 since, dominating stakes by a combined 30 lengths to become racing's Next Big Thing.

The Triple Crown barely eluded Baffert in 1997 and 1998 with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, respectively. In 2002, his third try blew up when front-runner War Emblem stumbled out of the gate.

Baffert calls himself the flaw in American Pharoah's armor, yet his unique sense of humor masks a hypercompetitive drive to excel at the elite level. If Pharoah wins the 1 1/2-mile marathon at Belmont Park, he'll become racing's 12th immortal and put his trainer in the record books forever.

"It's about the horse,'' Baffert told HRTV's Aaron Vercruysse. "It doesn't take a great trainer or a great jockey to win the Triple Crown, it takes a great horse. That's what we've been waiting 37 years for.

"You can't train greatness, you just watch.''

Although Baffert insists it's not about him, inevitably it is. Claiming the most coveted trophy in sports would put him in the pantheon with Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, the only trainer with two, and Ben Jones.

His ambitions were considerably more modest in 1991, when he switched from quarter horses to concentrate full-time on thoroughbreds. At 38, Baffert left his comfort zone after 16 years of running the blocky sprinters in the Southwest and California. When Gold Coast Express won the 1986 Champion of Champions, the Breeders' Cup Classic of the quarter horse game, at Los Alamitos, Baffert looked down from the mountain.

"I thought, 'This is it, I have hit the pinnacle of my career. It will not get any better than this.' ''

How wrong he was, but it would take 11 years to go from Mr. Quarter Horse to Mr. Triple Crown -- well, almost -- with Silver Charm.

With encouragement and financial backing from his main client and friend, Mike Pegram, and Hal Earnhardt, Baffert made the move to thoroughbreds. "When I started thinking about the switch, I had no idea,'' he said. "I was a little intimidated. I came over wearing my cowboy hat and boots, and when I saw big names like Charlie Whittingham, I was in awe of them.

"I had a lot of success in the quarter horse world, and I said, 'Man, I don't know. I'm going to give it three years. If I don't make a splash, I'm going to head back.' "

At first, it felt like drowning.

"It was pretty bad, pretty embarrassing. I ran last, I got beat a block. The first couple times, my brothers and a friend of mine came to watch my horse run. Then they said, 'Forget it, you're on your own, dude, we're not coming.' It was pretty humble beginnings.''

They didn't last that long. In 1991 and 1992, Baffert's small stable won 73 races and made $3.1 million. On Halloween 1992 at Gulfstream Park, he got a sweet treat from his first thoroughbred yearling purchase. The white-haired trainer and the gray gelding Thirty Slews upset the Breeders' Cup Sprint at odds of 18-1. That put Baffert on the national map but did little for his business, even though his $30,000 buy went on to earn $872,590.

Baffert reached the big stage at Churchill Downs in 1996, when Grindstone nosed out his gelding Cavonnier. Torture, and after the numbers were posted, Baffert said, "Well, at least for a few minutes I knew what it felt like to win the Kentucky Derby.''

He really did do it the next spring. Silver Charm's near miss in the Triple Crown made Baffert a celebrity, and he won his first of three consecutive Eclipse Awards as leading trainer. The next year came Real Quiet's nose defeat in the Belmont, the most excruciating beat of all time. Baffert shook it off and he's been a giant ever since, ranking sixth all-time with purse earnings exceeding $222 million.

Exercise rider Dana Barnes, Jimmy's wife, joined Baffert in the winter of 1996-97. She was asked how he has changed in 18 years.

"Bob gets more nervous now than he did then,'' she told Newsday. "I think he appreciates how hard it is. Three years in a row [1996-98] he had a good horse going into the Derby. Later on, we had a lot of Derby favorites. It kind of came a little easy.''

Although American Pharoah could be his horse of a lifetime, Baffert knows all too well why the Belmont is called "The Test of the Champion.'' If Pharoah's fate is the same as Silver Charm's, Real Quiet's and War Emblem's, no hand will be worse than four of a kind.

"I never thought I'd have another chance like this,'' he said. "To be going through it again is a wow moment any time I think about it, but I try not to think about it too much.''

This week, that will be impossible.

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