ESPN The Magazine|May 2019
Go along for the ride as Kentucky Derby favorite Game Winner endures anxious, rain-soaked weeks to do what he loves most: run.
The runner is standing before he opens his eyes. His morning routine is unvaried: Wake up before the sun rises over the San Gabriel Mountains. Hydrate and eat. Get his temperature taken—with body fat that low, he’s susceptible to bugs. Gear up. Head to the track, weather permitting.
He’s eager to get started today, shifting his weight from shoe to shoe. During the weeks of record-breaking rain in Southern California, he’s been stuck inside, affecting an attitude somewhere between stoically antsy and openly pissy. He wants to run.
It’s chilly at 7:30, but the runner will warm as soon as he starts moving. He’s huge—a beast, a unit, an oversized anatomical model of the muscular system—though his legs are awkward and bony. It’s endearing to see so much power resting on such an ill-equipped base. A grand piano on matchsticks. But what looks like a design flaw in stillness becomes flawless in motion. Tendons, flexors, joints, bones and muscles trigger one another, parts of a divine Rube Goldberg machine.
The runner is actually the front-runner, the current favorite to win the most important race of his career. Nobody around him will say this out loud, but if he were to win that and the two races that follow, he would be known as one of the greatestever athletes in his sport.
Parrum-parrum-parrum-parrum, one and a half times around the practice track. It’s more of a jog, less than half the runner’s top speed. But he’s loose and happy to be outside, doing what everyone keeps saying he was born to do. The workout is over in just a few minutes, but there is a susurrus of approval from the people gathered in the stands to watch him. The trainer grumbles into a walkietalkie, and the man on the runner’s back bends down to pat his neck. He tugs the runner’s reins and takes him back to the barn.
IF YOU WANT to know who Bob Baffert is, look at the walls. Every vertical surface in his domain is an easel for the 66-year-old’s achievements. The frames inside his barnside Santa Anita offce are so numerous that they bump up against one another, housing photos of the trainer being hugged by Jill, his wife, mid-victory roar; or being impersonated on Halloween by his adolescent son, who wears a mullet wig that Jill took to Baffert’s stylist to replicate his signature white side sweep. Outside, Baffert’s cars bear vanity plates named after his Triple Crown winners: 2018’s justify is stamped on the rear of a white Range Rover, and a black Bentley is branded pharoah for 2015 victor American Pharoah. If 5-1 Kentucky Derby pick Game Winner proves the oddsmakers right, Baffert will presumably have to procure another luxury vehicle.
Signs wallpapering the barn chronicle the thousands of wins of the thoroughbreds Baffert has trained. 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet. Trainer: Bob Baffert, the son of an Arizona cattle rancher who literally outgrew work as a jockey before his success as a quarter horse trainer elevated him to the highest tier of horse racing. 2001 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Point Given. Trainer: the guy ambling around the backside of Santa Anita in ostrich skin boots. Baffert calls out to Jimmy Barnes, his assistant of more than two decades: “Hey Jimmy, what do you do if I have a heart attack while I’m wearing Nikes?” “Run to the car and grab your boots,” Barnes recites. Baffert nods. “I’m going to die with my boots on.”
It’s March 5, and Game Winner has just made it onto the Baffert Wall of Fame with a 2018 Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old male. By winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, Game Winner secured a $1.1 million payout and a place as the Derby favorite, but Baffert feels he needs another race in him. Baffert sees his role in Game Winner’s career as “head coach.” “I’ve never taught a horse to run,” he says in a stream of punchlines and profundities. “I teach them how to harness their speed.” Baffert calls Game Winner a “stalker.” At the Breeders’ Cup, Game Winner broke slow before taking to the outside, knocking into the leading horse and, in the last lengths of the homestretch, transforming an ungainly race into a graceful win.
Game Winner’s a big boy, a 16-hand-tall bay with strong withers and powerful gaskins. (That’s horse for “shoulders” and “thighs.”) But like seventh-graders, horses are prone to conformity and monophobia. To defeat the pack is to go against the urge to stay with it. To win, prey must become alpha.
Is Game Winner an alpha? “Well, he acts like one,” Baffert says carefully. Game Winner rammed that opponent on the way to the Breeders’ Cup finish line. He has a penchant for midmeal tumescence. He’s set up to be one of just a handful of male Derby starters in the past 50 years to have been undefeated as a 2-year-old. But when his astronomical prospects are broached, the superstitious Baffert casts about for something to unjinx him. What about Improbable, he wants to know, a quick-starting stallion whom Baffert plans to race against Game Winner at the Derby? Or the horses who lived in Stall 33 before Game Winner: Justify and American Pharoah? Now, those two were alphas. When Justify got to the barn at Churchill Downs last year, he went in, Baffert says, “with his dick swinging. He walked past 50 horses and took a pee on the floor. They were screaming.” Baffert throws his head back, showing teeth as white as his hair, and approximates the loud whinny the lesser horses emitted at the sight of their better urinating.
Justify, like so many of the greats, is a bit of a dick. But American Pharoah is a sweetheart. Jill Baffert remembers him lying in her lap like a dog while she petted him. His streak was unbelievable: the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, Belmont, the Haskell Invitational.
There was a demand for this horse, this lovable giant, the first to win the Triple Crown in nearly 40 years. So four weeks after the Haskell, Baffert took him to the Travers Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York.
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