The racing and breeding world was shocked to learn of the death at age 53 of J.B. McKathan, who along with his brother Kevin, helped propel the comet known as Bob Baffert back in 1996, while establishing the McKathan Brothers Farm in Ocala as one of the best classrooms for young 2-year-olds to get their start.
It was Baffert’s good fortune to hook up with J.B. and Kevin, and vice versa, as Baffert was trying to make a name for himself on the classic scene and get rid of his reputation as a trainer of sprinters, a reputation gained by his fast horses and his background as a Quarter Horse trainer.
J.B. recalled years ago, “My brother Kevin and I met Bob at the Keeneland September sales and we just started shootin’ the bull. I knew he was a California trainer who was doing good out there, but most of all he was the guy who was really getting in our hair every time we tried to buy a horse. After he outbid us on High Stakes Player, I went up to him afterward and said, ‘You know, why don’t you just get the hell out of here. If you just leave I’ll upgrade your ticket to first class.’ And he said to me, ‘I’m already flying first class, buddy.’
“From then on we hit it off and discussed how we brought our young horses along. We had no idea what it was going to lead to, but even in the beginning we’d send horses out to Bob in California and they’d take off. We’d send him good horses, but he’s make them even better than we thought they were. I remember when we found Silver Charm for him. Man, I was pissed when we couldn’t get hold of him. Here I was working my (butt) off and I felt like he was blowing me off. The cool thing about it was when I did get in touch with him after he watched the video (of the colt’s breeze), it was ‘Buy the horse.’ No questions asked. And for a couple of days we actually did own that sonofagun.”
It was quite a story in itself that Baffert even got to train Silver Charm. The year before, he made his first trip to the Kentucky Derby with Cavonnier, who suffered a heartbreaking nose defeat at the hands of Grindstone and Baffert’s arch rival Wayne Lukas, going back to their Quarter Horse days. The then little-known Baffert was crushed and felt he had blown his one and only shot at winning the Derby.
But an event took place before the following year’s Derby that would change Baffert’s life forever and dramatically alter the downward course the Triple Crown had been on since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer seven years earlier.
A week before the Derby, Baffert left Louisville to fly to Phoenix to saddle The Texas Tunnel in the Phoenix Futurity. Shortly before that, Baffert had purchased a 2-year-old at Keeneland sight unseen for $80,000 without having him vetted. When the colt failed the vet’s exam after the sale, the consignor fortunately took him back. If he hadn’t, Baffert would have been stuck for the $80,000. Baffert had lucked out, but more important, he had learned a valuable lesson. He swore he would never buy another horse without first having him vetted.
So, when J.B. informed Baffert while he was in Phoenix that he and Kevin had found a long-striding 2-year-old son of Silver Buck at the Ocala sale that had worked like the wind under no urging at all, Baffert told them to send him the video of the work, in which the colt went a quarter in :21 4/5 and galloped out three furlongs in :34 2/5.
Baffert planned on watching the video at the Executive West Hotel in Louisville when he returned, and if he liked what he saw, he would have the colt vetted. But he was late departing from Phoenix and then ran into weather problems and more delays and couldn’t make it back to Kentucky in time. When J.B. asked him if they should bid on the colt for him, he declined, having vowed never again to buy a horse sight unseen and not having him vetted first.
The McKathans, who had fallen in love with colt, were disappointed, feeling this was “THE” horse that they needed to have.
By the time Baffert arrived back in Louisville, the sale was over. He watched the video anyway and loved what he saw, which was “a big gray flash coming down the stretch.” Baffert was sick he had missed the opportunity to buy the colt and told J.B. “We screwed up.”
McKathan told him the colt went for $100,000, but was a buy-back. “We can still get the sonofagun,” he said. Baffert gave the go-ahead and the McKathans went back and bought him privately for $85,000. Fortunately, the owners of the horse were clients of the McKathans and were still green in the business and were comfortable negotiating with J.B. According to J.B., they wanted to sell the colt for $100,000, but instead of upping the bid at $97,000 they upped it at $100,000, which meant a world of difference, considering many agents are instructed to bid up to $100,000. Had they bid $97,000 they might have gotten their $100,000 bid.
In any event, Baffert had bought the colt, but now had to find a buyer. His initial attempts proved unsuccessful. He then called one of his newer clients, Bob Lewis, to talk to him about his horse Criollito, who was running on the undercard on Derby Day. During the conversation, Baffert mentioned that he had just bought a 2-year-old he really liked for $85,000 and asked Lewis if he was interested. Lewis said yes and Baffert had his buyer. Lewis and Baffert had taken the first step in a journey that would change their lives.
Later in 1996 Baffert was at the Keeneland September yearling sale and was sitting on a wall out by the sales ring, along with J.B. and Kevin. They had just begun breaking Baffert’s horses after his regular guy, Jimmy Gladwell, went private. While sitting there, Baffert noticed this one colt a distance away and liked the way he looked. He admitted he was too lazy to get off the wall and take a closer look so he told J.B. to go check the horse out.
J.B. went to look at him and came back and told Baffert, “He doesn’t look too bad, but he’s a little crooked in his front legs.” Baffert then went to look at him and liked what he saw. He told J.B. he was willing to go to $50,000 to $60,000 for him. So they headed to the pavilion where the bidding on the colt was creeping along at $12,000 and $13,000. Baffert couldn’t understand it and inquired if there had been any announcements about the colt he might have missed. There weren’t any, so Baffert bid on him and wound up getting him for $17,000. He turned to J.B. and said, “Man, I can’t believe I got him for so cheap.” He wound up selling the horse to Mike Pegram, and that crooked legged $17,000 colt, later named Real Quiet, would give Baffert his second consecutive Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and come within the shortest of noses of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 20 years.
Fast forward to 2014. The McKathans were putting on a breeze show for the Ahmed Zayat-owned 2-year-olds to showcase their young horses and distribute them among their trainers. In attendance were representatives from WinStar Farm and several trainers, including Dale Romans and Tony Dutrow.
“We knew American Pharoah was special as soon as we let him do something on the track,” said Chris Alexander, who had been with the McKathans for eight years and deals directly with the Zayats. “At the breeze show, everybody was there, and J.B. asked me, ‘When are you bringing up Pharoah?’ I said I needed to breeze a couple of sets first, because he needs to be last and be on the racetrack by himself.”
Alexander and the McKathans were well aware of the show American Pharoah was about to put on. “Everyone was standing there talking and he came galloping by the viewing stand and we told them this was the best one Mr. Zayat’s got,” Alexander said. “Then when he broke off at the pole everyone went quiet.”
American Pharoah came flying down the stretch with those smooth, magnificent strides and everyone at once knew they were looking at something out of the ordinary. As he passed the wire, all you could hear was Ahmed Zayat utter an expletive phrase beginning with the word “Holy.” As the colt was pulling up, J.B. wasted no time in telling Zayat, “Figure out who you’re gonna send him to and get him out of here.”
“J.B. turned to me and said, 'Chris, get this sucker off the farm right now,' Alexander said. 'He’s too much horse for us to have here.' Tammy Fox (Dale Romans’ wife) was watching the breeze at the other end of the viewing stand and leaned over and said, ‘Dale, I want that one.’ But everyone wanted him. You could gallop him with two fingers, but once you took the rings off and he knew he was working, then he’d be tough. But he’d walk back to the barn and cool out in 10 minutes. Thirty minutes later you’d go to his stall and he was laid out fast asleep. This was after just going out there and working like you couldn’t even imagine a horse could work.”
Kevin McKathan added, “I’ve had my hands on a lot of talented horses (including many of Baffert’s top horses), but I’ve never had my hands on a horse this special and this fast.”
Although Baffert did not attend the breeze show, he was sent a video of the colt working. J.B. called him and said, “You need to get this horse to your barn. He’s way too fast to stay here.” So Baffert watched the tape and immediately contacted Zayat and told him, “Just remember, the Breeders’ Cup is at Santa Anita this year.” Before he knew it, American Pharoah was in his barn and life was about to change for Baffert and the McKathans yet again.
No recollections of Baffert in those early glory days would be complete without the sight of J.B. and Kevin alongside him on the journey of a lifetime; a journey that would last for 23 years and in many ways end way too soon.