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Bob Baffert's heart attack put winning races in perspective

Trainer Bob Baffert holds up the winning trophy

Trainer Bob Baffert holds up the winning trophy after the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs Saturday, May 2, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. Credit: AP / Brynn Anderson

Three years ago in a luxurious Dubai hotel, 59-year-old Bob Baffert got a wake-up call he wasn't expecting. He didn't know it, but he was having a heart attack, a jolting reminder that in the big picture, missing a Triple Crown by a nose in 1998 was no big deal.

His wife, Jill, and their son, Bode, who was 7, had accompanied him to the Dubai World Cup, and Baffert credits Jill with saving his life. After Googling his symptoms, she called for paramedics, and in the ICU the Bafferts learned the problem was two blocked arteries, with the left anterior descending artery 100 percent blocked. When Jill Googled that, she was horrified when the screen showed "widow maker."

In a 2013 interview with America's Best Racing, she said, "It was surreal to be so far away from home and for this to happen." On that video, Bob Baffert choked up while saying, "I told her that if things don't work out . . . I was thinking of Bode."

The surgeon told Jill her husband "was very lucky he didn't die," which transformed the superstar trainer's outlook on life. He changed his diet -- "No more chicken-fried steaks with gravy at Cracker Barrel" -- lost weight, cut down on long-distance travel and gained perspective he admittedly never had.

"After my little heart attack scare, I started realizing, you know what, you're not invincible, and you better enjoy what you have," Baffert said last Thursday, five days after American Pharoah ended his 13-year wait for a fourth Kentucky Derby trophy. On Saturday the colt will be heavily favored to win the Preakness Stakes and earn a chance to end the 37-year Triple Crown drought June 6 at Belmont Park.

"The Derby is our Masters. It's the top of the mountain. When you get older, you start thinking, 'I could wake up, or not wake up, whatever.' That's why I enjoyed this one more than anything."

Baffert's more philosophical view of existence didn't keep his blood pressure from shooting up as he watched American Pharoah battle Firing Line down Churchill Downs' stretch. With the world's most famous race on the line as a record crowd of 170,513 went nuts, atheists and true believers pleaded for divine intervention.

"I was like, 'Please, God, just give me a little push,' '' Baffert said. "Pharoah was edging up, but he could not put Firing Line away, and for an instant I thought, 'Well, maybe we aren't going to do it.' ''

The gut-wrenching stress didn't end until his latest 3-year-old star edged away in the final furlong to win by a length.

"I just felt so relieved," Baffert said. "I felt like God is with me."

He gave props to modern medicine, too. "I know one thing: Those stents the doctor put in in Dubai, they must be really strong. They got tested pretty well."

America has watched Bode Baffert (named for skier Bode Miller) grow up in the winner's circle, but he wasn't around yet in 2002 for War Emblem's Derby victory. The 10-year-old celebrated this golden moment by bouncing around in a wild dance you can check out on YouTube.

"Bode wanted it really bad," Baffert said. "It was just raw emotion. My three older boys were there, too, and they'd never been to a Derby. It was the greatest day of my racing life."

The morning after, Baffert shared the sweetest moment of all. "While walking to the news conference, Bode looked up and said, 'Daddy, thank you for fulfilling my Derby dream.'

"It meant a lot."

Notes & quotes: Trainer Todd Pletcher said Tuesday morning that his Derby also-rans Materiality and Carpe Diem will skip the Preakness and be pointed for the Belmont Stakes. "The bottom line: It's back in two weeks, a bit quick, and we've been successful in the past waiting for the Belmont," Pletcher told the Daily Racing Form. The field so far stands at only seven, which would be the Preakness' smallest since 1986 (seven). The draw is Wednesday . . . Baffert's Derby winners -- Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem -- won the Preakness, as did his Derby disappointments Point Given (2001) and Lookin At Lucky (2010).

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