Bob Baffert admits he's obsessed with the Kentucky Derby, and it's been 10 years since he raised the coveted, elusive trophy for the third time. The white-haired wisecracker has a strong chance to end the slump with the "now" 3-year-old, Bodemeister, a brilliant colt that owner Ahmed Zayat named for Baffert's 7-year-old son, Bode.
The 59-year-old Hall of Fame trainer felt ill while flying with his son and wife, Jill, from California to the Dubai World Cup. Around 3 a.m. March 26 in their hotel room, Baffert was sweating, his chest felt tight and his left arm hurt. Jill recognized the signs of a heart attack and called paramedics. On the way to the hospital, Baffert doubted he'd survive and was terrified he'd never see his son again. Half an hour after arriving, three stents were being inserted into two arteries that were 100- and 90-percent blocked. "If it wasn't for Jill,'' he said, "I'd be curtains. My doctor told me I'm a very lucky man. I could have gone into cardiac arrest.''
Nine days later, Baffert was joking at Santa Anita, saying he felt "like a hundred bucks." On April 14, he watched on television as Bodemeister and jockey Mike Smith dominated the Arkansas Derby by 9½ lengths, a dazzling performance likely to make him the favorite in a deep, talented Derby field.
"This is a special horse,'' Baffert said. "I have to get him to run that race again.''
If he does, he'll stamp himself as a freak with Triple Crown potential. Barry Irwin owned last year's Derby hero, Animal Kingdom, and sees star power in Bodemeister.
"That race was Big Brown-like,'' Irwin said, referring to the 2008 Derby-Preakness winner. "Whether he'll be able to fend off other horses on the lead and come back in a relatively short period of time, I don't know, but from a pure talent point of view, he looks like he's the one.''
There's nothing Baffert enjoys more than being Mr. Media during Derby week, but beating death in a photo finish forever changed his perspective. "Doctor says heart in good shape,'' Baffert tweeted April 11. "So relieved . . . I came to Dubai to buy a new watch and all I bought was time.''
He's exercising more, losing weight and eating healthier, although he regrets having to give up one deliciously guilty pleasure, chicken-fried steak smothered with gravy. "I'm feeling much better,'' he said. "Every day, I get stronger.''
Bodemeister is a son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, and his 108 Beyer speed figure is easily the fastest Derby prep. "Speed is his weapon,'' Baffert said, "and we know distance won't be a problem.''
But lack of experience might. Bodemeister didn't debut until Jan. 16, and it's been 130 years since the Derby winner didn't run at age 2. Baffert considers that "irrelevant" and is much more concerned about post position. Two years ago, his star, Lookin At Lucky, drew the dreaded rail and lost all chance early after being bumped twice.
The Derby will be Bodemeister's fifth race in only 3½ months, and many handicappers consider him a prime candidate to "bounce" (regress) off a career top. Baffert said he's not worried about that, either. A 5-furlong workout in 1:00.80 Tuesday at Churchill boosted his confidence in Bodemeister's fitness. "I liked the way he went this morning,'' he said. "He likes this track. He looked very fluid and skipped over it.''
HRTV analyst Laffit Pincay asked what it felt like to train a standout thoroughbred named for his son. "It's exciting,'' Baffert said, then choked up. "I get emotional. Things happen for a reason, so . . . ''
It's been said that the best story, not the best horse, often wins the Derby. Baffert may have both angles working for him. Doug O'Neill, who trains Derby contender I'll Have Another, is very wary of Bodemeister.
"Watching that race, it was like 'Uh-oh,' '' O'Neill said. "When Bob has one right, you want to stay out of the way.''