Two Rival Trainers Show No Signs of Slowing Down
Celebrated trainers Bob Baffert and Aidan O’Brien on the world-class appeal of the Breeders’ Cup Championship races
Aidan O'Brien (left) and Bob Baffert
If there never had been a Breeders’ Cup, where would we find Bob Baffert? Would Baffert still be the most recognizable figure in Thoroughbred racing, with his white hair and his gregarious personality holding court, usually in victory lane? No one knows for sure, especially Baffert. All he knows is he wasn’t in the game when the first Breeders’ Cup came along. But he does remember where he was. He recognizes that day as the one that propelled him down what has become a golden path.
It was 1984. Baffert was training Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos. The inaugural Breeders’ Cup was happening at Hollywood Park, maybe a half hour up the freeway.
On Baffert’s TV, Wild Again was stomping on conventional wisdom by winning the Classic, while Gate Dancer was disqualified for interfering with Slew o’ Gold, who was undefeated for the year. Princess Rooney was rolling to victory in the Distaff by seven lengths. And Lashkari, a 53-to-1 shot, spurted at the end and passed 1983 Horse of the Year All Along by a neck in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.
“I was fascinated,” Baffert says. “All these races in all these divisions, one right after the other. All the great horses were there, and you could tell how good the competition was.
“When you’re in the situation I was in, you don’t think about the Triple Crown races. That seems like something that’s so hard to get involved in. But there are so many races in the Breeders’ Cup that you can imagine being part of it. From that moment, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. And I’ve been fortunate enough to do that. It used to be a great day in racing. Now that it’s a two-day event, it’s a great weekend.”
Baffert, 64, has become the dominant American in his sport. In 2015, his American Pharoah became the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Most fans associate Baffert with three Saturdays in the spring. But he has been just as prominent in Breeders’ Cup races. He has won 14, including the past three Breeders’ Cup Classics. His Arrogate authored a stirring comeback victory over California Chrome last year in Santa Anita, and he might be the favorite this year, too.
“The Triple Crown races are one shot each,” Baffert says. “You get into the Derby, and there might be 20 horses there and you don’t know how many of them are real threats to win. You need luck to win any race, of course.
“But the Breeders’ Cup races bring together the best from around the world. Especially in the beginning, there were some fantastic European horses who came over here. The ones on turf were trained to hang back until the end and then they showed great speed to win those races. So you had all these champions, and the races would come right on top of each other. I think people in the industry know how important it is. It decides the best horse in every one of those divisions, and it highlights some divisions that wouldn’t get much attention otherwise.”
Sir Michael Stoute, 71, found success at the Breeders’ Cup and his horses won seven races, including last year’s Filly & Mare Turf. But 48-year-old Irishman Aidan O’Brien has been the most influential European trainer in recent years.
O’Brien has won the Epsom Derby six times and turned Ballydoyle Stables into a juggernaut. He has won 11 Breeders’ Cup races, including the past two turf races with Found and Highland Reel, the latter of whom also won the 2015 Secretariat Stakes.
O’Brien’s horses have taken six Breeders’ Cup Turf championships. On the dirt, Johannesburg won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in 2001.
He has won major races in nine countries, but it’s just in his blood. O’Brien and his wife, Anne-Marie, are the children of trainers, and one of their sons, Joseph, trained Intricately to run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last year, with another, Donnacha, as rider. Joseph was also the youngest jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race.
Aidan O’Brien echoes Baffert in his affinity for the Breeders’ Cup. “It’s kind of the Olympics of racing worldwide, isn’t it?” he told BloodHorse.
It took Baffert eight years to enter the picture. In 1992, he brought his first Thoroughbred, 5-year-old Thirty Slews, to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park. He joked that he was so attached to the Quarter Horse world he was the only trainer who didn’t wear a tie that day.
Baffert was on edge. Before the race, he was giving jockey Eddie Delahoussaye chapter and verse on what his strategy should be. Eddie D smiled and said, “Bob, we’ll take care of it. Relax.”
Thirty Slews was 18-to-1. Delahoussaye, the master at come-from-behind racing, got the horse past Maestra at the wire. Baffert remembers that first Breeders’ Cup as fondly as any of the high-profile wins he’s had since.
“When he won I remember that feeling. I didn’t think there could be anything better,” Baffert says. “That’s what I told [co-owner] Mike Pegram. He said there would be even better days ahead, but I didn’t see how. There was no pressure. I was just so happy. I’ve had some races where I felt all the pressure in the world.”
There wasn’t much pressure at the 2014 Classic at Santa Anita, either. Most eyes were on California Chrome. But Shared Belief, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, had royalty to him. Baffert’s Bayern went horizontal after the start and slammed into Shared Belief. Bayern came out of it with more gusto than Shared Belief did, and went on to win.
“Then last year you had two races that nobody will forget,” says Baffert, referring to Arrogate’s stalking of California Chrome in the Classic, and Beholder’s victory over Songbird in the Distaff after an unfiltered duel that took up the whole stretch.
“At first people weren’t sure if the Breeders’ Cup would work, being so late in the year,” Baffert says. “But when we saw the crowds”—64,000 at Hollywood Park for the first one—“we knew it was different. It’s so exciting to have everybody in the business together at the same place. There is so much money that the fans can play $1 exactas and hit it big.
“It’s a great event.”