SARATOGA SPRINGS – Twenty-seven years ago, ambition drove Bob Baffert to walk away from a successful career with quarter horses to train thoroughbreds full time. Few gambles ever paid off better.
“A lot of guys thought, ‘Is this guy going to be able to make the transition?’ ‘’ Baffert said Friday in a video tribute at Saratoga. “Wayne Lukas had pretty much paved the way.”
Baffert was 38 in 1991, Lukas’ age when he made the same switch in 1974. Against all odds, Baffert exceeded his former idol’s dominance in a sport Lukas ruled in the Eighties and Nineties. Baffert has won every important dirt race in the world at least once, produced Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify and has become a world-famous multimillionaire.
Another honor came his way Friday, when he was inducted into the Saratoga Walk of Fame in the Red Jacket Ceremony. Only 12 all-time greats belong to this exclusive club, with Baffert joining Lukas and trainers Bill Mott and the late Allen Jerkens; riders Angel Cordero Jr., Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez and Ramon Dominguez; owners Marylou Whitney, Cot Campbell and the late Ogden Mills Phipps, and former announcer Tom Durkin.
Lukas, 82, presented Baffert before a large crowd near the winner’s circle. “Bob is unique because he has covered all the bases in the sport,” Lukas said. “Bob has developed a great national presence and a great national fan base. He’s the greatest trainer in the world.”
Baffert reflected on his racing initiation at 12 on the cattle ranch his mentor and father, Bill, owned in obscure Nogales, Arizona. He rode quarter horses for two years with little success before training four champions. He couldn’t have imagined those triumphs would be relegated to footnotes in a historic career.
Baffert has a record 15 Triple Crown victories, one more than Lukas, and his list of major-stakes wins gives you eye strain. He thanked “all the horses who brought me here” as well as his father; his wife, Jill; longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes, and John and Tonja Terranova, Syosset residents whose barn houses his New York shippers.
Baffert has won three Travers (Point Given, 2001; Arrogate, 2016; West Coast, 2017) but lost the one he seemed certain to win. “I want to apologize for losing with Pharoah,” he said. “But this town turned into Pharatoga, and having 15,000 people come out and see him gallop was great.”
Wearing his new red jacket, a nod to Saratoga’s predominant color, Baffert saluted the venerable Spa.
“When you walk into Saratoga, it’s like walking into the old Yankee Stadium,” he said. “The first thing you hear is ‘The Graveyard of Champions,’ which is enough to scare anybody off. But winning the Travers, there’s nothing like it.
“The red jacket represents the pinnacle of the sport I’ve dedicated my life to.”