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.

"I don't forget people who helped me," says Baffert. "Gary Stevens took care of me and he rode a Kentucky Derby winner of ours."

Long gone as he might have been without help, here is someone who had the second-place horse in this year's Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

"Second is better than third," says Baffert, who already has three Derby winners.

Baffert begins this Breeders' Cup weekend with 10 horses, including the favorite in the Classic, Game On Dude, owned by Joe Torre.

"If Joe was a horse, he'd be Game On Dude," Baffert says. "What a nice man."

Instead of a couple of stalls at Santa Anita, he now has two stables. He's big time now, but bigger yet when he begins talking about his affection, gratitude and admiration for his parents, Ellie and Bill Baffert.

"I find myself reaching for my cellphone to call them when something happens with my son," he says. "I'm always thinking about them. It's like, who is going to watch over me; it's like I'm an orphan.

"I remember talking to my [7-year-old] son about my dad dying and he saying something like, 'Game over.' Everyone laughing and I'm wanting to call my dad and tell him."

Ellie Baffert died last year after a lengthy struggle with kidney disease; Bill passed in September.

"I always knew I had two fans watching on TV," Baffert says. "My mom would always say, 'Make sure my little baby, my son, Bode, is on there' when we would appear on TV. That's the only reason why we would put him on TV — for my mother. He kept her going."

Bill Baffert, aka "The Chief," owned a ranch, placing son and horses together. Bob, or Bob-o as his father called him, began as a jockey, winning more than 20 races before he began eating and graduated to trainer.

So many stories to tell, so many big races to come later in Baffert's life, but maybe his biggest thrill is leaving a quarter horse in his father's name and care. And then getting a breathless call from his mother after the horse wins a big race.

"My dad talked about that the rest of his life," Baffert says. "It was a thank-you to him for everything he did.

"Now as for my mom, who always wanted me to get a real job, I'm still looking for one."

Baffert is healthy now, 20 pounds lighter but still loaded with great horses. He says he feels like his game clock has been reset and he now has more time.

It's the best news to happen to horse racing in awhile, the winner's circle this weekend waiting for his appearance. Again. Or, as good as he is at what he does, maybe again, again and again.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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