LOUISVILLE — To become the best, it helps to be obsessed. Except for his family, nothing means as much to Bob Baffert as the great race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Even after sweeping the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last spring.
“The Kentucky Derby is still the one,” said Baffert, who has won five of them. “It’s still the most important race. To me the bar is the Derby. The Triple Crown is great, but there’s just something about the Derby. I could just win the Derby and just go home.”
Since their marriage in 2002, Jill Baffert has lived with his dream. “The Kentucky Derby is a driving force in Bob’s life,” she told NBCSN. “He starts thinking about it very early in a horse’s career.”
If Roadster, Game Winner or Improbable wins Saturday, Baffert will tie Ben Jones’ record of six Derby wins. He was asked if he knew anything about the man who trained 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway. Starting in the 1930s, “Plain Ben” Jones (1882-1961) from tiny Parnell, Missouri, transformed Calumet Farm into thoroughbred racing’s version of the Yankees dynasty.
“Ben Jones? The golfer?” Baffert joked. “I just know what you guys tell me about him. I don’t want to be thinking about things like that. I feel like I’d super-jinx myself. I feel lucky I won one Derby, let alone five.”
That’s how many Jones actually won, because he wouldn’t be credited with six if he hadn’t made probably the most selfish move in racing history. Ben’s son, Jimmy, had trained Citation for his entire career, starting in 1947, a year after Ben retired to become Calumet’s manager. But Ben wanted to match Herbert “Derby Dick” Thompson’s four wins, so he demanded to be listed as Citation’s trainer of record for the 1948 Derby.
Ben hadn’t done the work, but wanted the glory. Jimmy bit his tongue and went along with the charade.
“Ben didn’t train that horse,” longtime race caller Dave Johnson said many years later. “Jimmy did.”
Heavily favored Citation dominated and Ben posed proudly with his fourth trophy, but he alienated his son. Jimmy reportedly told journalist Heywood Hale Broun: “The son of a gun just stole him from me.”
“That was a battleground for us,” Jimmy Jones (1906-2001) told Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey the year before he died. “That wasn’t right. I almost quit, but I couldn’t. I never had a better job.”
As bitter as he was, walking away from Citation, an all-time great, would have been madness. Jimmy got the credit for the Preakness and Belmont as Citation became the last Triple Crown winner until Secretariat in 1973. Jimmy Jones took the Derby with Iron Liege (1957) and Tim Tam (1958). Ben got his fifth and sixth victories (fourth and fifth, to be honest) with Ponder (1949) and Hill Gail (1952).
By all accounts, big, arrogant Ben was a hard guy to like. Before becoming a world-class trainer, he was a saloon brawler and a wandering horse trader who supposedly crossed paths with the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. Jones had a unique touch with thoroughbreds. He was called “half horse” for his knack of bringing out their best.
His New York Times obituary ignored the adage to say nothing bad about the dead: “His son, Jimmy, officially trained two Derby winners, but did most of the actual handling of several others, while allowing his father to take the credit and break Derby records.”
But they’re in the books forever, and Baffert really doesn’t care about what happened long ago. This week he’s focused only on revisiting his happy place, the winner’s circle in Churchill’s infield.
“I’ve got three nice horses, and I just hope that turning for home all three are right there,” he said. “There’s nothing more exciting than when they’re heading into the stretch of the Derby and your horse is in contention.”