T.J. Simers

Thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert still has heart of a champion

Having survived a cardiac scare in March, trainer Bob Baffert, 20 pounds lighter and looking stronger than ever, is ready to take center stage at Breeders' Cup.

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Bob Baffert is flat on his back and hears those around him saying he has the "widow maker," like he doesn't already know his chest is killing him.

He's in Dubai this past March. He's 59 and figures he's doomed.

"It was like, 'oh man, this is it.' I'm just waiting for them to turn out the lights," he says. Because he makes his living training horses, in his business people expect the worst and hope for the best.

He gives his wife, Jill, a verbal last will and testament, telling her to "keep this, sell that and here's what you need to do when I'm gone."

Then he grows angry, reminding himself how far he has come and telling himself, "so now this is how it's going to end?"

They find 100% blockage on the left side leading to his heart, and Jill is already reading on Google he has suffered a major heart attack and will most likely die in minutes or maybe hours.

He's a goner, all right, but not for the first time.

Maybe it's just meant to be, or maybe it's because he comes from great stock, or maybe it just takes some heart.

When Baffert steps into the winner's circle this weekend at Santa Anita after one of his horses wins a Breeders' Cup race, and he will, it's because he just won't go away.

The first time Baffert went looking for a thoroughbred, he put in a claim to buy one but forgot to write the horse's name on the form, losing the opportunity to make the purchase.

When he finally got a horse, he took it to Santa Anita, couldn't find anyone to exercise it, and took the horse back to Los Alamitos without a workout.

"I'm dying," he tells friends, and doesn't that sound familiar.

He gives himself one more try; if not successful he plans to return to training quarter horses at Los Alamitos.

But he runs into Bob Baedeker, who is helping his father put together Baedeker's Guide, a tip sheet. Baffert asks for help, so Baedeker goes hunting for a horse and comes up with Presidents Summit.

Baffert claims the horse but has to ask, "What do I do now?"

"They just told me to follow the horse," he says.

Baffert returns to Santa Anita and searches desperately for an exercise rider. He doesn't know it's not proper, but he asks jockey Gary Stevens, who is hanging around the snack bar, if he would ride the horse.

Stevens agrees, but when he asks Baffert how he would like to train him, Baffert is clueless.

"I didn't know what I was doing," Baffert says.

A few days later, Baffert's horse wins its first race, and now, more than 30 years later, the only claiming horses in Baffert's superstar-filled barn are a pair owned by Bob Baedeker & Co.

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