The one-track mind of Kentucky Derby favorite Game Winner

Game Winner is a stoic "stalker" who tends to save his drama for the come-from-behind victories. Gail Fisher for ESPN

The runner is standing before he opens his eyes. His morning routine is unvaried: Wake up before the sun rises over the San Gabriel Mountains. Hydrate and eat. Get his temperature taken -- with body fat that low, he's susceptible to bugs. Gear up. Head to the track, weather permitting.

He's eager to get started today, shifting his weight from shoe to shoe. During the weeks of record-breaking rain in Southern California, he's been stuck inside, affecting an attitude somewhere between stoically antsy and openly pissy. He wants to run.

It's chilly at 7:30, but the runner will warm as soon as he starts moving. He's huge -- a beast, a unit, an oversized anatomical model of the muscular system -- though his legs are awkward and bony. It's endearing to see so much power resting on such an ill-equipped base. A grand piano on matchsticks. But what looks like a design flaw in stillness becomes flawless in motion. Tendons, flexors, joints, bones and muscles trigger one another, parts of a divine Rube Goldberg machine.

The runner is actually the front-runner; on this day he's the current favorite to win the most important race of his career. Nobody around him will say this out loud, but if he were to win that and the two races that follow, he would be known as one of the greatest-ever athletes in his sport.

Parrum-parrum-parrum-parrum, one and a half times around the practice track. It's more of a jog, less than half the runner's top speed. But he's loose and happy to be outside, doing what everyone keeps saying he was born to do. The workout is over in just a few minutes, but there is a susurrus of approval from the people gathered in the stands to watch him. The trainer grumbles into a walkie-talkie, and the man on the runner's back bends down to pat his neck. He tugs the runner's reins and takes him back to the barn.

IF YOU WANT to know who Bob Baffert is, look at the walls. Every vertical surface in his domain is an easel for the 66-year-old's achievements. The frames inside his barnside Santa Anita office are so numerous that they bump up against one another, housing photos of the trainer being hugged by Jill, his wife, mid-victory roar; or being impersonated on Halloween by his adolescent son, who wears a mullet wig that Jill took to Baffert's stylist to replicate his signature white side sweep. Outside, Baffert's cars bear vanity plates named after his Triple Crown winners: 2018's JUSTIFY is stamped on the rear of a white Range Rover, and a black Bentley is branded PHAROAH for 2015 victor American Pharoah. If Game Winner can pull off a win May 4 in Kentucky, Baffert will presumably have to procure another luxury vehicle.

Signs wallpapering the barn chronicle the thousands of wins of the thoroughbreds Baffert has trained. 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet. Trainer: Bob Baffert, the son of an Arizona cattle rancher who literally outgrew work as a jockey before his success as a quarter horse trainer elevated him to the highest tier of horse racing. 2001 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Point Given. Trainer: the guy ambling around the backside of Santa Anita in ostrich skin boots. Baffert calls out to Jimmy Barnes, his assistant of more than two decades: "Hey Jimmy, what do you do if I have a heart attack while I'm wearing Nikes?" "Run to the car and grab your boots," Barnes recites. Baffert nods. "I'm going to die with my boots on."

It's March 5, and Game Winner has just made it onto the Baffert Wall of Fame with a 2018 Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old male. By winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in November, Game Winner secured a $1.1 million payout and a place as the Derby favorite, but Baffert feels he needs another race in him. Baffert sees his role in Game Winner's career as "head coach." "I've never taught a horse to run," he says in a stream of punchlines and profundities. "I teach them how to harness their speed." Baffert calls Game Winner a "stalker." At the Breeders' Cup, Game Winner broke slow before taking to the outside, knocking into the leading horse and, in the last lengths of the homestretch, transforming an ungainly race into a graceful win.

Game Winner's a big boy, a 16-hand-tall bay with strong withers and powerful gaskins. (That's horse for "shoulders" and "thighs.") But like seventh-graders, horses are prone to conformity and monophobia. To defeat the pack is to go against the urge to stay with it. To win, prey must become alpha.

Is Game Winner an alpha? "Well, he acts like one," Baffert says carefully. Game Winner rammed that opponent on the way to the Breeders' Cup finish line. He has a penchant for midmeal tumescence. He's set up to be one of just a handful of male Derby starters in the past 50 years to have been undefeated as a 2-year-old. But when his astronomical prospects are broached, the superstitious Baffert casts about for something to unjinx him. What about Improbable, he wants to know, a quick-starting stallion whom Baffert plans to race against Game Winner at the Derby? Or the horses who lived in Stall 33 before Game Winner: Justify and American Pharoah? Now, those two were alphas. When Justify got to the barn at the Belmont Stakes last year, he went in, Baffert says, "with his dick swinging. He walked past 50 horses and took a pee on the floor. They were screaming." Baffert throws his head back, showing teeth as white as his hair, and approximates the loud whinny the lesser horses emitted at the sight of their better urinating.

Justify, like so many of the greats, is a bit of a dick. But American Pharoah is a sweetheart. Jill Baffert remembers him lying in her lap like a dog while she petted him. His streak was unbelievable: the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, Belmont, the Haskell Invitational. There was a demand for this horse, this lovable giant, the first to win the Triple Crown in nearly 40 years. So four weeks after the Haskell, Baffert took him to the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Fifteen thousand people came to watch the star warm up. It was so overwhelming that Baffert dispatched Smokey, a calming pony used to escort the thoroughbreds to races, to help ease Pharoah to the start. Hyped up by the crowd and Smokey and an eager jockey, Pharoah tired himself out. The next day, he lost a race he should have won.

Jill weeps now, recounting the story. Baffert looks up from texting the owner of one of his horses. "Are you talking about my heart attack?" he jokes of the coronary he had in Dubai in 2012, which scared Baffert enough to always keep his boots close. Jill ignores him.

"Bob was devastated," she says. "Not because he lost. Because he let the horse down."

Baffert is quiet for the first time all day, dropping his phone on a desk decorated with an American Pharoah figurine and bobbleheads of himself, in replicas of the ostrich boots he'll die in one day, and Donald Trump, nodding under a MAGA cap. Baffert won't ever forget that feeling. The dread of loss not resolved by victory. The unfulfilled promise of an undefeated winner. What happens when you let a horse down.

When she calls, everyone perks up, popping out to greet her. "Hi, mama!" she says, getting close enough for one grateful recipient of her affection to nuzzle into her neck. "I'm here!" The runner is the only one who doesn't come to his door.

She carries organic baby carrots, their morning snack, though an apple is offered as tribute for the runner's birthday. Just as any boxer between 175.1 and 200 pounds is a cruiserweight, anyone in this sport born between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2016, is 3. Nevertheless, today, March 6, is the date the runner left the dark comfort of his mother. Minutes later, he stood for the first time.

The runner hangs back in his stall, so the apple is given to a pony that escorts the runner to his races to alleviate his anxiety. Other runners keep different pets for the same function. Goats. Rabbits in cages. Perhaps these tender little creatures summon courage under pressure, the way a parent feigns braveness for a child during turbulence. The runner has to be strong.

When the visitor gets to his room, it's clear he's been napping, spindly legs tucked around him at odd angles. The runner is aware of his needs. Right now, he needs rest. He won't tolerate being cold or wet for long. He doesn't like to be touched, twisting his head away like a royal recoiling from a nemesis's air kiss. The adrenaline of a race can inspire outward affection, but most of the time, the runner is calm. Ascetic.

The runner rouses himself in a clumsy grog and comes to the door of his modest room. Delicate lips take in his carrot treat; dark eyes never leave his visitor. It seems impossible that someone so strong could be so beautiful.

FIFTEEN MILLION DOLLARS. That's how much Game Winner's life is worth, according to the $450,000-a-year insurance policy that his owners, Gary and Mary West, have on him. It pays out only if he cannot breed when his racing career is over. In a half-ton animal that literally sleeps standing up, this would likeliest be caused by the kind of catastrophic injury whose only treatment is death.

Game Winner's $15 million value is a 3,309 percent return on the $110,000 investment made at Keeneland's September Yearling Sale in 2017. The Wests became telecommunications billionaires and the founders of a $200 million charity for the infirm and elderly by listening to the numbers. Accordingly, a horse purchase is a mathematical venture.

Out of hundreds of horses up for auction every day of the sale, 10 to 15 are X-rayed and scoped by a vet. Half are eliminated for fractures and structural defects, and those that remain are winnowed to five and assigned a maximum bid. If that bid is high enough, the horse is added to the Wests' 200-ish-large roster. Game Winner became one of those horses, at which point the Wests promptly forgot about him.

"I didn't see Game Winner again until the day he broke his maiden at Del Mar," in August the next year, says the charmingly direct Gary West, sitting back in a booth at West Steak and Seafood in Carlsbad, California. (Yes, they own it.) "Bobby [Gary loves Bobby Baffert] said, 'Gary, this horse has got some ability, but he doesn't have much speed. This is not the right distance for the horse, but he needs a race in him.'" Game Winner started his career balky, the last one in the gate, running in the middle of the six-horse pack before charging through a six-length deficit to win. A stalker was born.

Game Winner is a statistical anomaly, the Wests' first real Derby contender. Which means his success will earn him far more in the stud shed than the $1.5 million he's won in races. The $15 million insurance policy came from West's estimate that Game Winner will sire $10 million worth of foals if he doesn't win any of the Stakes, with a 50 percent boost in value if he does. So he's worth the daily training fee and the 10 percent of his purses collected by Baffert.

"Bobby has tried just about everything in the book to figure out how to get inside a horse's head," West says, shaking his own. But it's Game Winner who has to run. For all the Wests' metrics, there is sensible simplicity in the final calculation. "You can't teach talent to untalented people," West says. "And you can't make a slow racehorse run fast."

The runner is annoyed, moody. His back is visible from the door, his face turned to the rain like a mourning Bronte heroine. He has a routine, and this weather is screwing it up. He's been in his 9-by-9 room all day, which would be irritating even if it weren't race week. Race week is palpable. Race week is electric. Right now, the runner is a stander. He is not running. No one is running. The track is closed.

The trainer approaches. Less than effusive under better circumstances, the runner snorts. When the trainer doesn't get the hint, the runner bodies him, knocking him off balance with an easy step to the left. The trainer defers to his star and backs off. The runner will feel better after he eats, the trainer says. He and the runner both know he's lying.

There's only one thing the runner wants to do.

BETWEEN DEC. 26 AND March 5, 21 horses died at Santa Anita. One had a heart attack, but the others perished after landing badly, euphemistically known as taking "bad steps," which led to euthanasia. The track shuttered for a week, and the day after it reopened, another filly was put down after breaking both her front legs, prompting an investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Three days after the track's third shutdown ended, a 23rd horse died.

The cause of these deaths, Santa Anita publicity director Mike Willman says, is "multifactorial." One of those factors was the 20 inches of rain that fell in Arcadia during that time period; another was the lowest temperatures in the region since 1962. The unrelenting precipitation has screwed up everyone's training schedules, leaving trainers scrambling for time on the track during patches of good weather. Higher than normal "traffic" also alters the texture of the course, like an ice rink before the Zamboni comes around, making it less safe for horses to run on.

Though Santa Anita is making moves to reopen during this week in early March -- bringing back recently retired track supervisor Dennis Moore; requiring vet checks to ensure no vulnerable horses are running; proposing a ban on unprescribed race-day drugs and riding crops -- dread pervades the track. Everyone is thinking about the dead animals. They love these horses. Baffert visits his retired thoroughbreds.

But horse racing generates tens of billions of dollars. The track is no longer going to handle $20 million this weekend, affecting the people who provide the endless, unglamorous maintenance of Game Winner and the others: removing soiled hay from stalls, cooking oats, combing feces out of tails, taking temperatures rectally. There's also the larger existential threat of PETA finally getting its wish and shutting down horse racing altogether. "It's like you own a restaurant franchise and there's a salmonella outbreak at one location," Baffert says of the PR nightmare.

Of course, much of the apprehension comes from the other side of what makes racing so thrilling: luck. Anybody's horse could have been among those who took a bad step. "It can happen," Baffert says -- and it has, to him, as recently as last March, when Smarty Jones Stakes winner Mourinho had to be put down.

"That's why I don't like to do articles," Baffert says. "I could jinx myself."

The power of horse racing is in its contrast. The delicacy and strength of the horses. The way a win crashes over you harder after the despair of sure defeat. How one step can mean victory or a vet silencing a 1,200-pound creature that was just running 40 mph.

Baffert must amplify and harness Game Winner's speed, diagnosing that reality this way: "You don't know how far a horse can go until you've gone too far." He must tout Game Winner's chances while moderating expectations and trying not to goad fate, the shell game of superstition and bluster that leads some owners to name their horses Improbable, and others Game Winner. Baffert needs to do right by the horse.

And so in early March, Game Winner leaves his stall at Santa Anita Barn 1B to be trailered 30 miles to Orange County's Los Alamitos, where he can continue training. On his first morning at the new track, everyone in the stands is either watching the horse or watching Baffert watch his horse. Baffert points field glasses at Game Winner as he breezes under exercise jockey Humberto Gomez, galloping without a touch of the crop.

"He's running really good," Baffert says, staring through the Leicas. "He looks great."

A manager named Bob Baedeker pipes up from behind. "We call him Junior Justify!" he chirps.

Baffert lowers his voice but not his binoculars. "Don't ever say that again," he says.

After his workout, the runner begins a cooldown, a sedate half an hour of plodding to prevent lactic acid buildup in his muscles. A jacket hoards the heat he just generated. The runner walks in a circle, raising his head to the bright sky for a few moments before he submits to the many knowing hands who will examine and clean and tape and feed and soothe and tend to his precious body. He stolidly endures the kind of constant physical intimacy known only to the very famous or very sick. Then he is back in his room, alone, his gift put away for the day.

IN MID-MARCH, Game Winner is in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the Rebel Stakes. Baffert -- and, surely, Game Winner, if he got to vote -- would have preferred the horse stay in Southern California, where he wouldn't be forced to fly without tranquilizers. But he needed another race in him.

He's trotting around Oaklawn with jockey Joel Rosario on his back and a pony by his side, high-stepping as he leads the miniature parade. Baffert watches at home in California from what he calls his Grade 1 couch because of the number of $300,000-plus races he's won sitting on it. As usual, he is nestled in the center of the Venn diagram of confidence and terror.

With the help of legendary trainers Jerry Hollendorfer and Richard Mandella, Baffert has persuaded organizers to split the Rebel into two smaller races, which means a million-dollar purse has become two purses of $750,000 each. It also means his stars -- Game Winner and Improbable -- won't have to race each other.

As Game Winner enters his gate, the announcers test out storylines: Will this be another step in his destined victory march? Or will the undefeated horse finally be overtaken?

Game Winner breaks slow, hanging in the middle of the scrum, far behind leader Omaha Beach. This is part of the Game Winner script. The moment when the crowd collectively thinks, "There's no way he can come back from this."

Game Winner erupts to the outside, shrinking the vast distance to Omaha Beach. He's getting closer. He's at the leader's heel, then moving up his body. Their trajectories converge. Game Winner puts his head down just as Omaha Beach's comes up. Yes, yes, yes! He's done it again! But instead of joy there is confusion. The stallions have crossed the line together.

After a few sweaty minutes of review, the verdict is reached: Game Winner has lost by what an announcer calls "a flared nostril." Like fellow second-place finisher Improbable, he's "rusty" after more than four months without racing and a rain-stymied training schedule, Baffert admits a couple of days later. The Rebel reveals Game Winner's fallibility, loss suddenly a reality rather than a possibility. Still, the trainer speaks about his horse with perfect head-coach-after-a-loss bravado. "He hasn't regressed," Baffert insists over the phone, as many thoroughbreds do after their 2-year-old year. And when the camera zoomed in on Game Winner after the race, "he is all happy, pulling the groom around there," Baffert says. "He's Mr. Macho." But, Baffert says for what will be the last time before the Kentucky Derby, Game Winner needs another race in him. In three weeks, he will narrowly lose that race -- the Santa Anita Derby -- to Roadster, another Baffert trainee. Then an advantageous post position is drawn at Churchill Downs. (He'll start from Gate 15.) The favorite gets a cough. (Rebel winner Omaha Beach.) The dumb luck of racing throbs in the guts of its victors and victims. And Game Winner is once again the Kentucky Derby frontrunner.

The track feels good this morning. The runner starts slow, if any gallop by one of the world's best can be called "slow." Then faster, faster, fueled by the cool ocean air and the delight of his lightness. The accelerando of his tread on the dirt, a soft percussion that's punctuated by the squaw of birds and the awe of the small crowd. The open track is all potential, gobbled up by each of the runner's strides.

The runner doesn't know the weight of his success or the cost of his failure. He doesn't know what rests on six minutes of racing. He doesn't need to. He just needs to do what he was born to. Parrum-parrum-parrum-parrum.