Bob Baffert has had many important horses in his Hall of Fame career, topped by the obvious names, Silver Charm, American Pharoah, Justify, Arrogate, and Game On Dude. But there is one horse rarely mentioned that is one of the most important horses he has ever trained, from a professional and personal standpoint.
Most people naturally assume that Baffert's career has been one continuous chain of successes, good fortune, and classic victories and training titles.
But what people might forget is that Baffert went seven years without a classic victory. After winning an amazing eight classic races from 1997-2002 (Four Preaknesses, three Kentucky Derbys, and one Belmont Stakes), Baffert went cold and couldn't buy a classic victory. For someone who lives and breathes the Kentucky Derby and the classic spotlight, seven years without a victory seemed like an eternity. He finally showed signs of life when he finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby with Pioneerof the Nile.
Then came a hard-trying, tough as nails colt named Lookin At Lucky, who opened the door for Baffert's "second career," which amazingly has topped his first career. With his victory in the 2010 Preakness Stakes, following a nightmare trip from the rail in the Kentucky Derby, Lookin At Lucky breathed new life into Baffert's career and teamed him up with the Horatio Alger of jockeys, Martin Garcia, who would play an important role in Baffert's success over the past eight years, working many of his top horses, including American Pharoah. He also was aboard for Baffert's first Breeders' Cup Classic victory in 2014 with Bayern.
Lookin At Lucky also had a profound effect on Baffert's personal life, as his Preakness victory would be the last classic score witnessed by Baffert's mother Ellie and father Bill, who he called his first hero and mentor.
Baffert was thrilled that his parents were still alive to see and enjoy this moment after such a long drought. Ellie had been ill for several years and this was a tonic for her as she watched back home in Nogales, Ariz.
"It means so much that my parents were able to see this," Baffert said after the race. "It's keeping them alive watching these big races. It's more for my parents than anything else. My mother's been hanging in there, but it's tough. I spoke to her after the race, and she said, 'Dad and I were cheering and I kept saying 'You did it.' And I got to see my baby (Baffert and wife Jill's son Bode) on television."
The day after the Preakness, Ellie said. "That was just tremendous. You know, Bobby has won three Derbys, but I've never gotten so many phone calls as I did after this race. Maybe it's because he hadn't won (a classic) in a long time. But I'm so happy, and I'm proud of ol' Bobby. He bounced right back; I always knew he would. I heard later about the crowd cheering Bode before the race. I'm crazy about that baby. All my kids have grown up and he's the only baby I have left."
Ellie passed away a little over a year later on June 23, 2011, and 14 months later, Bill succumbed to cancer following a long battle. The last memory they took with them was of their son back in the Triple Crown spotlight, with their "baby" grandson there for the first of his many trips to the winner's circle after classic and Breeders' Cup victories.
Baffert had lost the two big inspirations of his life who helped guide him to successes far beyond their wildest dreams. Lookin At Lucky's Preakness victory was his going away present to them, and Baffert can only hope they were looking down in the years to come at his two Triple Crown conquests, his string of Breeders' Cup Classic victories, and watching their grandson grow with each winner's circle photo.
Lookin At Lucky's Preakness victory also was a special moment for Baffert's longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes and his wife Dana, who exercised Lookin At Lucky.
They and Baffert and the rest of the team had to endure a heartbreaking winter and spring in addition to Lookin At Lucky's Kentucky Derby misfortune, in which he was shut off, squeezed, bumped hard into the rail, and knocked out of contention early in the race. Baffert also lost one of his promising 3-year-olds, Clutch Player, who died of pneumonia in January, and he then suffered another tragedy when the brilliant Tiz Chrome broke down in a workout at Churchill Downs two weeks before the Derby and had to be euthanized. Lookin At Lucky had suffered one bad break after another, starting with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, in which he was bumped late and nailed right on the wire by European invader Vale of York. He overcame a terrible trip to win the Rebel Stakes, but was beaten in the Santa Anita Derby when he had to steady sharply, and then came his Kentucky Derby debacle.
"It's so rewarding, just because of all we've been going through since the Santa Anita Derby; actually since the Breeders' Cup," Jimmy said. "It's been one frustration after another. I left Churchill Downs with a bitter taste in my mouth. But he finally got the trip he needed and he showed what kind of horse he is. This horse wants to win and he laid it down and gutted it out like he's done so many times before."
"He's just like a happy kid," Dana said. "He's like, 'Whatever you want me to do I'll do it.' What makes this so special is that, although we'd won four Preaknesses, Jimmy and I have never been here at the same time, because one of us had to take care of the kids."
Jimmy added, "It's so great for us to be together and enjoy it, and we're so happy for Martin. That kid rides his heart out."
In a gutsy move following the Derby, Baffert named the 25-year-old Garcia, who had no experience in classic races before, to replace Lookin At Lucky's regular rider Garrett Gomez, a two-time Eclipse Award winner who had won three consecutive riding titles for money won and four Breeders' Cup races.
Baffert felt Lookin At Lucky and Gomez simply weren't having good karma and decided a change needed to be made. Garcia and Baffert had been having good luck together, highlighted by their victory in the Santa Anita Handicap with Misremembered, owned by Jill. So Baffert decided not to wait for good luck any longer. He went out looking for it.
It took Baffert eight days following Lookin at Lucky's sixth-place finish in the Derby before deciding to run the colt back in the Preakness. He has always been a firm believer in waiting as long as possible before making decisions, and it wasn't until that eighth day that Lookin At Lucky gave him the go-ahead to book his flight to Baltimore.
On May 9 at 5:01 p.m. Baffert sent Jill a text message. It read simply: "We're going to win the Preakness." At 6:54 p.m. that same day, he sent his brother Bill the exact same text. When Jill later asked him what prompted this newfound optimism, he told her he loved the way the horse looked and the way he trained that morning. Just like that, Baffert began to have an insatiable craving for crabs and it was on to Baltimore.
So Baffert made his move and reluctantly informed Gomez he was switching riders. On the Tuesday before the Preakness, Baffert told Garcia, who had ridden Conveyance for him in the Kentucky Derby, that he was riding Lookin At Lucky in the Preakness.
"I am, really? Wow! Thank you so much, senor, you made my day," Garcia told Baffert.
Baffert told him, "I'm going out on a limb, but you need the experience, because hopefully you're going to be riding a lot of these for me. Look, there's no pressure on you. You have nothing to lose."
Baffert loved Garcia's response. "No, senor, we're gonna win it."
"He's a great kid," Baffert said, "and the best thing about him is that he appreciates where he came from. Even as he was about to get on the horse (for the Preakness), he was still thanking me. "He said, 'Thank you so much again for letting me ride the horse.'"
The native of Veracruz, Mexico has never seen his mother and father. His mother became pregnant with him when she was 14 and abandoned him. He was raised by his grandmother and wound up becoming a construction worker at age 11 after quitting school to earn some money. He later made his way to the U.S., where he worked at Chicago's Metropolitan Deli in Pleasanton, Calif., as dishwasher, bus boy, and cook. When the owner of the deli took him to a nearby farm to show him her horse, he hopped on bareback and proceeded to negotiate several difficult jumps, exhibiting a natural riding ability. The deli owner introduced him to a former rider, and he eventually wound up at the Pleasanton fair in Northern California, working as a hotwalker, groom, and exercise rider.
When he began riding, he showed immediate success and soon was challenging Northern California legend Russell Baze for the riding title at Bay Meadows. He captured the title at Golden Gate before heading to Southern California, where he caught the eye of Baffert, who told him, "If you want to ride for me you have to show up and work horses. Starting at 8 o'clock you belong to me."
The one thing Baffert insisted on after giving Garcia the Preakness assignment was that he go on Youtube and study Gary Stevens' ride on Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby. That was the prototype he was to follow, especially how to get position going into the first turn.
So, everything was in place for Lookin At Lucky to turn his and Baffert's luck around. On May 15, he finally lived up to his name, as Garcia gave the son of Smart Strike--Private Feeling, by Belong to Me a perfect ride and a clean trip, winning the Preakness by three-quarters of length and providing Baffert with his fifth Preakness victory and first classic win since 2002.
This was also a special victory for Baffert, winning it for his longtime owner and friend Mike Pegram, who was so instrumental in helping him make the transition from Quarter Horse racing to Thoroughbred racing. Pegram took on partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, and is still enjoying success so many years later.
Lookin At Lucky has since gone on to become a top stallion, siring last year's leading older horse Accelerate, winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic, Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic, and about to make his final start in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup. His son Lookin At Lee finished second in the 2017 Kentucky Derby, his daughter Wow Cat won last year's grade 1 Beldame Stakes and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff following an undefeated career in Chile, and he has a very live Kentucky Derby hopeful in the impressive maiden winner Country House.
So, as Accelerate is about to conclude his sensational career, and with a potential Derby horse on the horizon, it is a good time to pay tribute to a horse who has in many ways left an indelible mark on Bob Baffert's career.
As a personal footnote, I have to add another incident in which Lookin At Lucky played a big part. The morning following the Preakness, with Baffert having to catch a plane, he realized the victory blanket of black-eyed susans was still hanging on the railing outside the barn.
He turned to me and said, "Why don't you take it home and give it to Joan for Mother's Day." Normally, to get a flower off a classic victory blanket is a big thrill, but to get the entire blanket was something I was unprepared for. I couldn't believe how heavy and cumbersome it was as I tried to get into the trunk of my car. When I got home I laid it on the back of the living room chair and called Joan down.
I lost track of how many "Oh my Gods" spewed forth in the next half hour. She couldn't wait to take it to work with her the following day. Needless to say it was major hit.
So, thank you Bob Baffert and Lookin At Lucky for providing my wife with such an amazing and special Mother's Day gift.
Best of luck this year to a horse who affected more lives than anyone could have imagined.