Hall Call - by Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the April 25, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)  

While spending a spring morning watching horses gallop at Keeneland in 1990, I met a relative newcomer to training Thoroughbreds. He was searching for the clockers, and as it was his first trip to the Kentucky track, the West Coast-based conditioner was unaware they timed horses from the press box.

I showed him the way.

“I have a horse here for the Lexington (Stakes, gr. II),” he said as we walked. “If he wins this, we’ll go on to the (Kentucky) Derby (gr. I).”

I listened, not letting on I was convinced I had already seen the Derby winner at Keeneland, a horse named Unbridled who had run third in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) as a perfect prep for the first Saturday in May.

“I’m Bob Baffert,” he said to the clockers. “I breezed a horse named Thirty Slews.”

Thirty Slews ran third in the 1 1⁄16-mile Lexington, and Baffert saw all he needed to see. The job of a trainer is to find where his horse can be the most competitive, and Baffert never ran Thirty Slews farther than seven furlongs in 18 subsequent races. Thirty Slews won the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint to become Baffert’s first grade I winner.

Baffert has been adept at figuring out where his horses are the most competitive, and though he didn’t make it to the Derby with Thirty Slews, he eventually found his way to Churchill Downs. More importantly, he found the hallowed winner’s circle.

Now, racing has honored Baffert by voting him into the sport’s Hall of Fame, one of six members of the class of 2009 announced April 20 to be inducted in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Aug. 14.

Baffert nearly won the Derby in his first try when Cavonnier ran second in 1996 by a nose (he also started Semoran that year, who ran 14th). Almost immediately, Baffert became a media darling. He stood out with his white hair and dark sunglasses, and was always good for a quote or 20.

Baffert returned to Louisville, Ky., the following year and won the Derby by a head with Silver Charm for Bob and Beverly Lewis. The next year he won the race for his good friend Mike Pegram, as Real Quiet scored by a half-length.

The days since he won the $2,000 Turquoise Futurity at Rillito Park in 1982 were long gone. Baffert was quickly proving he is one of the best in the game.

He won the Derby a third time in 2002 with War Emblem for the late Prince Ahmed Salman and returns this year with one of the favorites, Pioneerof the Nile. Baffert has also won the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) four times and the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) once. He was less than a length away from winning the Triple Crown twice, Silver Charm beaten three-quarters of a length in the Belmont and Real Quiet losing by a scant nose.

Thirty Slews was the first of seven Breeders’ Cup winners for Baffert, who was the leading money-winning trainer three straight years, 1998-2000.

Baffert enters the Hall the same year as one of his trainees, Silverbulletday, one of 10 champions he has conditioned. His other household names include such stars as Chilukki, Indian Blessing, Midnight Lute, Congaree, Vindication, Point Given, Captain Steve, Excellent Meeting, El Corredor, and Indian Charlie.

Baffert was first discussed by members of the Hall of Fame nominating committee two years ago, but he failed to receive the necessary votes to appear on the ballot in 2007 and 2008 because some were concerned he had not trained enough Thoroughbreds during the years when he was first transitioning from training Quarter Horses.

Now, in his first year on the ballot, the 56-year-old Baffert has been elected to a spot alongside the best the sport has known. It may be a couple of years overdue, but it is a most-deserving honor for a most-deserving recipient.

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