It was 1996 and Bob Baffert, then a relatively unknown trainer, made his first impact on the classic scene when he brought Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby. No one knew much about this former Quarter-Horse trainer, except that he generally trained sprinters until Cavonnier came along and he had a quick, witty tongue and could entertain the media like no trainer they had ever encountered.
One morning, Baffert drove to the grandstand and watched Kentucky Derby favorite Unbridled’s Song work a sharp six furlongs, reaching across the ground with those long, powerful strides. Baffert could tell right away that this big gray colt was something special. He knew he had a good horse in Cavonnier, but could only dream about having a horse the caliber of Unbridled’s Song.
Driving back to his barn from the grandstand, Baffert stated emphatically, as only he could, what he would do to get a horse like Unbridled’s Song.
“I’d swim across a river of gasoline with a torch up my (butt),” he said.
Well, it has taken 20 years, but Baffert finally has swum across that river, and he did it without suffering even the slightest burn. He finally has found his Unbridled’s Song; his big gray streak of lightning who could run a hole in the wind.
Unbridled’s Song died three years ago, but he left Baffert and the racing world with perhaps his greatest legacy in his son Arrogate, who no doubt brought back memories for Baffert of that brilliant gray colt who was the talk of Louisville two decades ago and who Baffert longed to train.
Baffert was so enamored with Arrogate, he put him on a plane and sent him cross-country to face most of the top 3-year-olds in the country in the Travers Stakes, despite the colt being lightly raced with only four starts and never having even run in a stakes. What he did that day will go down in Saratoga and Travers lore as one of the most breathtaking performances ever witnessed at the historic track.
To add to the ironic turn of events, Arrogate was ridden in the Travers by Mike Smith, who was the regular rider for Unbridled’s Song.
For Baffert, so much has happened in his life and career since 1996 he’s probably never even made the connection to Unbridled’s Song. But if you had heard him talk about the colt with the reverence he did and then heard him talk about the natural gifts that Arrogate possesses, you couldn’t help but link father and son.
The reason Baffert was so close to Unbridled’s Song was that he was stabled in the same barn with the Derby favorite and was able to observe him closely every day. He would scrutinize his every move as he walked past Baffert’s end of the barn.
That is how it came about that Baffert said to me in private one morning, “You know, Unbridled’s Song is wearing a bar shoe.”
That, of course, sent up a warning flare. The colt had demonstrated his brilliance, winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and blowing his field away in the Florida Derby, earning a whopping 114 Beyer speed figure Following his victory in the Wood Memorial, a rumor began to circulate that Unbridled’s Song had come out of the race with a bruised foot, but nothing ever came of it, and the colt went about his daily training with no problems.
After a bit of prodding, Unbridled’s Song’s trainer Jim Ryerson explained that colt had injured his foot in the Wood Memorial. He believed he had hit something and taken out a chunk of the bulb of his heel. His groom, Jose Perales, had discovered it while picking out the colt’s feet after the Wood. Unbridled’s Song was given a tetanus shot, and an acrylic patch was put on to help the foot heal. Because there was some warmth in his foot, they had to drain it as well.
Ryerson added that the colt had worked two days earlier at Churchill without the bar shoe and the foot was “cold as ice” afterward.
That’s the way it stood until Ryerson returned to the barn one afternoon early in Derby week and checked the horse’s foot. He noticed tenderness in the area, so he pulled off the shoe and soaked the foot. He put the colt on antibiotics, something no trainer wants to do that close to a race, especially the Kentucky Derby.
Blacksmith, Hans Albrecht, feeling the old shoe was aggravating the heel, replaced it with a Z-bar shoe, which, with its Z-shaped extension inside the shoe, provided additional protection. It wasn’t looking good for the Derby favorite.
The following morning (Tuesday), the foot seemed better and Unbridled’s Song had a good gallop with his new shoe. At first, he was a little tentative with it but appeared to get used to it quickly. Ryerson did say that the colt would not breeze Wednesday, as originally planned, which was not good news. If he had to miss the breeze altogether, they would be forced to come up with an alternate plan.
That night, Ryerson called owner Ernie Paragallo and told him he was thinking of changing plans and working Unbridled’s Song a half-mile Wednesday morning. He could have played it safe and galloped him again when the track turned wet following an early morning shower. But Ryerson felt it was time to find out once and for all just where they were with the colt. This was the Kentucky Derby. If Unbridled’s Song’s foot wasn’t able to stand up to the punishment of a half-mile work over a wet track, he had no business being in the race.
Meanwhile, there was something else going on in that barn that might have changed the course of history regarding Baffert, a 2-year-old colt he had just bought that week, named Silver Charm, and owners Bob and Beverly Lewis.
Baffert had purchased the colt privately with help of the McKathan brothers after he had failed to meet his reserve at the sale. But he needed to find an owner fast. He knew that Buzz Chace, bloodstock agent and adviser for Paragallo, had bid on the colt, so he no doubt liked him. Baffert asked Chace if he would be interested in buying him for Paragallo and sending him to California, and Chace told him he would ask. Paragallo was scheduled to arrive in Louisville the following morning, and Chace told Baffert he was pretty sure he’d take him.
But later that day when Baffert arrived at the barn, he learned that Unbridled’s Song had suffered a setback. The following morning, as the colt’s foot was being soaked, Baffert went over to Chace and told him he was sorry they were having such a tough time with the horse, but he wondered whether he had spoken to Paragallo about the 2-year-old. Chace said, “Forget it. Forget it. This isn’t the time. Sell it to somebody else. I don’t even want to bring it up.”
Baffert considered his friend Mike Pegram, but Pegram had so many horses at the time, and Baffert always bought yearlings for him. He then noticed a note he had left for himself to call Bob Lewis and give him an update on his horse Criollito, who was scheduled to run in the upcoming Churchill Downs Stakes. So Baffert called Lewis and mentioned to him that he had just bought this 2-year-old and really loved him, and asked if he was interested. Lewis agreed, and paid $80,000 for the colt and $5,000 for the McKathan brothers, J.B. and Kevin.
The rest as they say is history. If it hadn’t been for Unbridled’s Song’s foot injury, Silver Charm likely would have been sold to Ernie Paragallo instead of Lewis. And we all know the fate that awaited Paragallo years later.
It seemed as if Unbridled’s Song had become an integral part of Baffert’s first Derby, as the two were linked in an odd sort of way – sharing the same barn, Baffert being bowled over by his workout, spotting the bar shoe, and the foot injury that stopped the sale of Silver Charm to Unbridled’s Song’s owner. When the colt drew post 20 for the Derby, Baffert just shook his head and said, “How can any horse in my barn have such bad karma?”
But getting back to Unbridled’s Song’s foot injury, his status for the Derby would be determined by how he worked on the Wednesday before the race, a decision Ryerson made when he woke up that morning. He called Paragallo, who gave him the OK. He then called Mike Smith and told him to come to the track to work the horse.
There was a foreboding atmosphere knowing that the Derby favorite with a nagging foot bruise and wearing bar shoes was about to work over a wet track to determine whether or not he was going to run.
Unbridled’s Song was under tack by 6 a.m., and the Z-bar shoes had been replaced with two egg-bar shoes, which are full egg-shaped shoes that cover the entire foot and provide better balance and support. While some vets believe they don’t hinder a horse’s performance, many horsemen equate the transition to going from running shoes to combat boots. They certainly are not desirable, especially in a race like the Kentucky Derby.
Ryerson had been up most of the night worrying about the work. As Unbridled’s Song made his way on to the track, Ryerson went up to the clocker’s stand, located midway down the backstretch, and waited nervously.
“We’ll know in a few minutes,” he said. The time wasn’t important. Ryerson just wanted to see how the colt went with the egg-bars, which he no doubt would have to wear in the Derby, and how the foot stood up to the pressure.
In the clocker’s stand were trainers Phil Thomas and Gary “Red Dog” Hartlage, who had their clocks ready to time Unbridled’s Song’s work. Because it was still dark, all anyone could see of the work were the split seconds when the colt passed under lights situated at the poles.
Unbridled’s Song broke off at the half-mile pole. It was near-impossible to catch the opening split from their vantage point in the dark, so Thomas and Hartlage just timed his final three-eighths. As they checked their splits, they couldn’t believe what they saw and were convinced they had blown the time or were clocking the wrong horse.
“No, that’s him,” Ryerson assured them. As Unbridled’s Song passed the finish line, Thomas looked at his watch first and said, “Good God, I got his last three-eighths in :33 4/5; that can’t be right.”
“I got the same time,” Hartlage said. Ryerson then checked with the clockers, who told him they had caught the colt in :46 flat for the half-mile, galloping out five furlongs in :59 1/5. It was a spectacular work for any horse, but for one wearing two egg-bar shoes and nursing a sore foot it was unheard of. One independent clocker caught him pulling up six furlongs in 1:11 and change, with Smith finally able to rein him in after a mile in 1:37 and change.
Everyone was buzzing about the final time of the work and the way he galloped out, but Ryerson remained apprehensive. The most important part was still to come.
“The time means nothing,” he said. “It’s all how he comes back,”
Then, out of the fading darkness, a gray figure appeared bouncing along next to his lead pony Leo. “He looks alright…he looks alright!” Ryerson said, his voice rising with renewed enthusiasm. When Smith gave him a big thumbs up leaving the track, it put the finishing touches on an emotion-packed morning and one of the greatest Derby works anyone had ever seen.
Unbridled’s Song cooled out beautifully and veterinarian Foster Northrup said the colt came out of the work in excellent shape. Ryerson now had an idea how much the egg-bar shoes would affect the horse in the Derby. But the Derby is a far cry from a half-mile work.
Because of the injury and having to wear egg-bar shoes, Unbridled’s Song was sent off as the 7-2 favorite in the Derby. Breaking from post 19, following one late scratch, he came out running and pressed the brutal early pace set by Honour and Glory and Matty G. through fractions of :22 1/5, :46 flat, and 1:10 flat. While both those top-class stakes horses stopped to a walk, finishing 17th and 18th, Unbridled’s Song made a quick, spectacular move outside horses to take command and open a clear lead on the far turn. It was shaping up to be one of the great performances ever in the Derby, as he turned for home still well out in front.
But as soon as he went to change leads, you could tell there was little left. Cavonnier charged past him on the inside, but he continued to battle on, and was still only a head back at the eighth pole. Then came the late closers -- eventual winner Grindstone, and Prince of Thieves -- and Halo Sunshine, who also was close to the pace and ran huge. Between the blazing fractions, the egg bar shoes, that big early move, and running farther than he probably wanted to go, Unbridled’s Song had little left, but never stopped trying. At the end, he finished fifth, beaten only 3 3/4 lengths, and a neck and a nose for third. It was one of the greatest losing efforts in Derby history.
The Derby experience had left Ryerson emotionally drained. Churchill Downs, in an unprecedented move, had set up a podium outside his barn, where the trainer would address the media daily on the latest condition of his horse.
Now, finally, it was over. All that remained from the previous week’s soap opera was the familiar podium that had become a meeting place each morning for every reporter, photographer, and TV cameraman. Curled up inside the podium, fast asleep, was Ryerson’s black cat, Lucky, whose conflicting color and name served as a final reminder of one of the most bizarre weeks in the history of the Kentucky Derby and one of the most courageous performances ever witnessed in the Run for the Roses.
It was a Derby that Baffert will never forget, and he admitted that a good deal of his new-found popularity was because of Unbridled’s Song. “It wasn’t until Unbridled’s Song came into our barn that I started getting some attention,” Baffert recalled years later. “Every morning it was a mob scene over there, and I was just getting the residuals down at my end. It was like, ‘Hey, you guys want to talk to me? I’ll tell you anything you want to know. I’ve got a lot to talk about.” Little by little, I got to talking and joking and wound up doing a lot of television and getting exposure.
“I really got caught up in the whole Unbridled’s Song deal. It was total chaos. What that horse had to go through, it proved he was a great horse. If he didn’t have that foot problem, the Derby would have been a totally different story. There was no doubt he was the best horse in the race.”
Unbridled’s Song never was fully sound for any prolonged period of time after that. He was turned over to Nick Zito late in 1996 and the following January he drubbed the top-class sprinter Appealing Skier in the seven-furlong Olympic Handicap at Gulfstream in a sizzling 1:21 2/5. But he was injured yet again and retired to Taylor Made Farm in 1997, where he became one of the most influential stallions in the United States and abroad, siring over 100 stakes winners and numerous grade I winners.
Looking back at that Kentucky Derby, the finish was all about D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of the winner Grindstone, and Bob Baffert, who suffered a heartbreaking nose defeat. But the real story of the Derby was Unbridled’s Song, who in a way upstaged the winner and runner-up in defeat.
Adding to all the ironies, a month after Unbridled’s Song’s death, his son, Will Take Charge, won the Travers Stakes for Lukas, and three years later, his son Arrogate won the Travers for Baffert.
By winning by a sensational 13 1/2 lengths in 1:59.36, breaking the 37-year-old stakes and track record, Arrogate brought back visions of his sire at the height of his brilliance and had anyone who remembers him contemplating what might have been had he stayed sound. Not only had Arrogate crushed the track record, set by Secretariat’s son General Assembly, he came within 12 one-hundredths of a second of running the fastest 1 1/4 miles by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing, a record set by Albert the Great in the 2000 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Both Arrogate and Albert the Great trace to the legendary Dr. Fager, who many consider the fastest horse ever produced in America, through his grandson Fappiano.
It also was at Saratoga on Aug. 26, 1995 (Arrogate won the Travers on Aug. 27) that Unbridled’s Song blew everyone away winning his career debut eased up by 8 1/2 lengths. So both father and son both ran lights out in their only appearance at the Spa.
Frank Herbert, author of the Dune novels, wrote: ““What is the son but an extension of the father.”
That extension of father and son is what we saw on Saturday – a performance that Baffert actually described to a T 20 years ago on a morning at Churchill Downs after being awestruck by Unbridled’s Song. Here he was now two decades later watching his son win the Travers…like he had a torch up his butt.