Last Saturday night, for the first time in a year, trainer Bob Baffert was finally at peace with what had happened to him early last May—comfortable at last with himself and his place in the history of his sport and profession.
Baffert was standing in the middle of the Kentucky Derby Museum theater at Churchill Downs, sipping from a bottle of beer at the traditional postrace party honoring the winner of the Derby, when he sensed that the demon hounding him for so long had been banished. Nearly three hours earlier Baffert's fluidly moving iron-gray colt, Silver Charm, had won the 123rd running of the Kentucky Derby by a head, after stubbornly holding off Captain Bodgit's late charge down the final straight. Now, as Baffert stood among hundreds of revelers, the lights in the theater grew dim, and he glanced up at the screen to face once again the worst moment in his life.
It was May 4, 1996, all over again, and the first horse Baffert had ever entered in the Derby, a leggy bay named Cavonnier, looked for all the world like a winner as he drove by the faltering Unbridled's Song at the eighth pole and began to pull away. Just as a delirious Baffert thought he had the race won, Grindstone came charging on the outside, whittling Cavonnier's lead to a neck and then a head. They were nose and nose as they hit the wire. When the photo showed Grindstone the winner by a whisker, Baffert lapsed into a state approaching shock—and, ultimately, into a yearlong depression.
Before this year's race, Baffert had visited the museum and attended its Derby show, a nostalgic, 15-minute slide presentation with a stirring soundtrack. Near the end of it, with his arms breaking out in goose bumps, Baffert was suddenly watching Cavonnier's Derby and listening to the call of Grindstone's charge to the wire. Baffert left the museum repeating to himself: I've got to win one of these!
Now here he was on Saturday night, watching that replay again at the party being held in honor of Silver Charm, hearing the call as Cavonnier and Grindstone fought to the finish. This time, when it was over, Baffert turned away and said, "It doesn't bother me anymore."
How could it, after what had taken place that afternoon? In one of the finest Derbies in years—a wide-open renewal in which the principal riders rode cleanly and smartly and nearly all the horses ran to form—jockey Gary Stevens brought Silver Charm from off the pace with a rush at the top of the stretch, where the colt seemed to lower himself through the 200-yard dash to the eighth pole. There he snatched the lead from the gutty Free House, his pale nemesis from California (who had edged him twice in their three previous meetings). But it wasn't over. In the final 16th, jockey Alex Solis and the late-charging favorite Captain Bodgit came surging to Silver Charm's throat. With Stevens and Solis doing the huck-a-buck in their saddles, derrieres gyrating and whips slashing, the Charm cocked his head to the right and fixed the Captain with his right eye, as Affirmed used to do alongside Alydar, seeming to dare him to get by. The two hurtled that way, as a team in harness, down to the wire, with the gray holding off the bay to win by a head.
The roaring climax brought to a close a bizarre Derby week. It was a week in which Seth Hancock, the president of Claiborne Farm, who was upset at the media for a variety of past sins, refused to say a word in public about his colt Pulpit, one of the prerace favorites. As the head of the most prestigious breeding farm in America, a major leader of a sport in trouble, Hancock had picked the worst time imaginable to behave like an adolescent pouting in his room.
It was also a week in which trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had run at least one horse in the Derby for the last 16 years, decided at the last minute to enter the obviously hopeless Deeds Not Words, prompting a local columnist to call him a "megalomaniac" who wanted to be the talk of Derby week. Lukas thus kept alive his streak, but the horse finished dead last. (Ironically, Lukas had nominated nine horses for this Triple Crown series on behalf of Bob and Beverly Lewis, who also own Silver Charm; not one of those nominees made it to Churchill Downs. In a further touch of irony, Lukas had trained last year's Derby winner, Grindstone.)
Ultimately this week belonged to the 44-year-old Baffert, an affable former quarter-horse trainer and 1977 graduate of the University of Arizona, where he majored in animal science. "I actually majored in campus wildlife," says Baffert, the son of an Arizona cattle rancher. "This is the year of the white-haired guys from Arizona. I want to put the Derby behind me this year like Lute Olson put the Final Four behind him."
In the days leading up to the Derby, Baffert was clearly a man on a quest to avenge the bitter loss of a year before. By 1996 he had been training thoroughbreds full time for only five years, but he had emerged as a leading conditioner of stakes horses, had already saddled the winner of one of the nation's premier events—Thirty Slews, in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint—and had won a Santa Anita training title, in 1995. Although Cavonnier had won the 1996 Santa Anita Derby for Baffert, the trainer was hoping only that the colt would hit the board in his run for the roses. But after watching the stretch duel with Grindstone, Baffert was sure his colt had dropped his nose in front at the wire. "We won!" he yelled.