BALTIMORE -- The racing gods were preparing their prototype of the perfect big-time trainer. They took a handful of charisma, a dash of charm, and a sprinkling of talent. Then they mixed it all together with a smidgen of sacrilege and more than enough scatterbrained brilliance to go around. All we can say about the result is, thank heavens for Bob Baffert.
Every time Baffert comes to this ever-changing yet somehow routine circus we know as the Triple Crown, he brings a horse that has a shot. He also brings enthusiasm, excitement, entertainment to the game. In a world of corporate stables and close-to-the-vest dealers, it's something this sport is in vital need of.
Only this white-haired Hall of Famer, ever the live wire, would show up at the barn 30 minutes before running in a $1 million race with one thing on his mind -- pursuit of a picture with Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn. That's right. Before the Preakness, before his horse sought redemption from three horrible trips and a Kentucky Derby run gone terribly wrong, before he entrusted control of that horse's destiny with a 25-year-old jockey who had been riding for only five short years; before all of that, Baffert was running around the Pimlico backside searching for a camera, because he wanted his 5-year-old son Bode (named after that other famous Olympic skier, Bode Miller) to get a shot with the skiing pro.
Never mind the irreverent references to Lookin At Lucky's co-owners (he calls them "the car guys") or his ridiculous questions to jockey Martin Garcia in the news conference after the victory ("Were you excited?!" "Did you want to jump off the horse?!" "How did you feel?!"), or his smart-alec answers to members of the media who wanted to find out what time to be back at the barn the next morning ("We're leaving at 7, so I got to be here real early. I'll be here five minutes to 7.") Just consider the fact that the Preakness winner could be going here, there, or anywhere -- at least where Baffert's agenda is concerned.
"I have to decide, do I send him back to California, New York, or Kentucky?" he said. "I never have a plan. I just wait. Don't make a decision till you have to."
In spite of his cheekiness, in spite of his showmanship, Baffert also conveys his passion for the horse -- and a game that has rewarded him well.
"This was a different kind of win," he said. "This was a redemption win. This horse is such a warrior. He wants to win. He tries so hard. So I wanted to win it for the horse, you know, because he tries so hard every time. It's easy to lose a little faith in him ... I heard people say he gets in trouble because maybe he's not that good. So today, when I saw Martin hit that wire, I was so happy for that horse."
In this horseman we find exactly what we find in racing. The unexpected, unpredictable, and always uninhibited. And although it's been a long stretch between victories (he got his last here, in the Preakness, with War Emblem in 2002), his legacy will extend far beyond the various and multitudinous scores.
For which we can only say thank you, Bob Baffert, for a job well done.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.