I’ve got a confession to make.
While most people from East to West, North to South rooted for American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown and then to keep on winning, I’ve been rooting decidedly against him. I bet against him in the Derby, which I went to, and in the Preakness. I quit trying to beat him in the Belmont, but I would have bet against him in yesterday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course because one of his competitors, Texas Red, had been my sentimental favorite since last spring. Unfortunately, Texas Red got injured and missed the Triple Crown races.
But I’m sure you’re curious: Why would I be so strongly against American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978?
It has nothing to do with the horse. The horse I like. Nothing to do with the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and nothing to do with the jockey, Victor Espinoza.
For me, it’s all about the trainer, Bob Baffert, with whom I had a brief and unpleasant meeting several years ago.
Let me tell you the story…
I am acquainted with Joe Drape, turf writer for The New York Times. Joe’s from Kansas City, and I have been friends with his sister, Mary Ann, for many years.
That particular year, I think it was 2010, Joe invited me to come out to the Churchill Downs backside (the barn area of the track, across from the grandstand and clubhouse) one morning a few days before the Derby and watch the Derby horses work out. I met Joe at his hotel and we drove out to the track together. Joe was working, and after the Derby horses had galloped, I tagged along with Joe as he interviewed some trainers in the barn area.
One of the trainers he wanted to interview was Baffert, who, if I’ve got the year correct, had Lookin at Lucky, who ended up going off as a weak favorite on Derby Day. (The eventual winner was Super Saver.)
So there was Baffert, in jeans and a long-sleeved dress shirt, as I recall, with his shock of white hair and trademark sunglasses.
Before starting the interview, Joe introduced us, and we shook hands. I then stood by as Joe asked Baffert several questions. As the interview was winding down, it occurred to me that I might slide in a question.
There was a particular horse in the Derby lineup that I liked — I can’t remember the horse’s name now — and I thought it would be interesting to get Baffert’s opinion of that horse. So I said, “Bob, what do you expect from (xxx) and where do you think he will be (during the race)?”
Baffert looked at me through those sunglasses and said, in an absolutely flat voice, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, not saying another word.
Joe and I looked at each other, equally puzzled and stunned, and I said, “I’m sorry I fucked up your interview.”
…Since that moment, as you might imagine, I have not been a fan of Bob Baffert. In my opinion, he’s a jerk. He’s a great trainer, undeniably, but I will never bet on a Baffert-trained horse again.
That’s why I watched the Travers yesterday with more than passing interest.
I was rooting for Texas Red, but what I really wanted was for any horse in the field to beat American Pharoah.
Soon after the horses left the starting gate, Frosted, one of the horses Pharoah beat in the Derby and Belmont, began pressing Pharoah, who was on the lead. Frosted kept the pressure on Pharoah all the way around the track and took a slim lead as the horses rounded the home turn and came into the stretch.
I was on my feet in my living room, screaming and cheering for Frosted.
Part way down the stretch Pharoah edged out in front, and it was clear Frosted would not come back to catch him. However, Frosted’s all-out challenge had taken a lot out of Pharoah, too, and down the middle of the track charged a horse named Keen Ice, who had gone off at odds of 16 to 1 and also had lost to Pharoah in the Derby and Belmont.
About a hundred yards before they hit the wire, Keen Ice passed Pharoah and drew clear. I felt like 220 volts of electricity had surged through me. Later, I replayed the race for my daughter, who had been out, and once again I jumped out of my chair as Keen Ice passed the Triple Crown champion.
Interviewed on TV after the race, a humbled Baffert said, “You can tell he wasn’t on his A-game.”
A minute or so later, a camera focused on Baffert’s wife, Jill, a beautiful blond. She was crying. Her tears didn’t move me a bit.