The winner’s circle was a million miles from anyone’s mind Saturday afternoon in the lonely barns behind Pimlico, where Bob Baffert and his team were knee-deep in disaster.
The 70-year-old trainer was on the phone, dealing with the fallout after Havnameltdown, his 3-year-old winner of three graded races and favored for a fourth, snapped a foreleg somewhere along Pimlico’s dirt path. The horse threw jockey Luis Saez (who left the track in an ambulance but was later reportedly doing well) and had to be euthanized — casting a pall over a weekend that was meant to be Baffert’s triumphant return.
It was a low. Baffert’s team wore long faces, idling glumly around the barn. His wife, Jill Baffert, wept bitterly. It was the first horse death during a Preakness lead-in that was dominated by health concerns after seven at Churchill Downs.
But with Baffert there’s always another winner coming around the turn. Even as the most controversial man in racing had another of his horses die Saturday, he somehow just keeps holding on.
This weekend, it was National Treasure who came up aces against Blazing Sevens, beating back a spirited charge to win by a head.
The thrill of victory swept in immediately, almost completely displacing the grief. Co-owner Bat Masterson swung over toward Baffert, slapping him on the back and shouting, “I knew it!” over the swarm flooding toward the turf course. Baffert largely kept his cool behind his signature shades, breaking his composure only a crack when a TV commentator asked him about “the emotions of the day.”
“The horse,” Baffert said, “brought us all out of a horrible moment.”
It was a rousing success for Team Baffert, including his jockey John Velazquez, who had 6,000 wins to his name but none of them in the Preakness Stakes before Saturday evening. Sol Kumin, a Johns Hopkins grad, got to celebrate with Masterson, a Maryland alum, before attending Sunday’s Blue Jays lacrosse game in Annapolis.
“We’re all on the same cloud,” Baffert said.
That cloud is why — in spite of the scrutiny that always seems to be nipping at his heels — Baffert has survived 43 years in racing: He just wins. In fact, with his eighth Preakness champion, he’s now won more than any trainer in the race’s 148-year history.
That, of course, is the point, especially for ambitious owners spending big on the best horses.
“Bob, we’ve just always had his back,” Kumin said when asked about sticking with Baffert through controversy. “He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s been treated really unfairly. There’s never been any wavering from anybody in this group. ... He’s our guy, and will continue to be so.”
Baffert’s secret to success is as subtle as his expensive suits and signature silver-haired coif. He and his owners pay a lot of money for the best stock. National Treasure was bought as a yearling for half a million dollars, bred carefully through generations for the most favorable racing traits — rippling muscle packed leanly on light frames.
Give Baffert’s team credit for coaxing the best racing out of the colt at the right time, but even he admits there is very little magic behind his victories. He compared himself to Alabama football coach Nick Saban, who similarly churns out championships: “I like the five-star recruits. That’s my whole secret.”
He’s not so much a trainer as a brand — one synonymous with, sure, some controversy. But mostly: crossing the line first.
By the end of the day, Baffert had more wins than losses. He had another 3-year-old, Arabian Road, win the fourth race of the day. He had been hoping to complete a sweep before disaster struck Havnameltdown.
“It’s the most sickening feeling a trainer can have,” said Baffert, who also described it as “a punch to the gut.”
No one denies that trainers, who spend many unseen hours caring for these animals, care about their well-being. Baffert spoke about the toll racing has taken on his heart, which has three stents after a lifetime of close finishes.
But it’s also clear he has a stronger stomach than most.
Baffert had been suspended from Triple Crown racing since 2021 after his Kentucky Derby champion, Medina Spirit, tested positive for a steroid that is generally accepted in training but banned on race day. The Washington Post also reported that year that Baffert had one of the highest death rates among high-profile trainers who power the sport.
In his victory news conference, Baffert dismissed this as “noise” and “negativity” that have followed him the past few years. But the day’s attendees had seen the latest death with their own eyes, shrouded by a black tent meant to keep Havnameltdown out of mind as well as out of sight.
National Treasure completed that job, sparking joy among the owners and horsemen even as dark clouds drew over the track. The rain didn’t even break until after the pictures in the winner’s circle.
That circle insulates its inhabitants from a great many things: pain, despair and just maybe the questions that should continue to be asked about Baffert’s methods and the dead horses in his wake.
“We grieve,” Baffert said. “I’m still grieving about it. We’re sad about that horse, and we will be for a while.”
What a difficult quandary — to have to schedule the grief around the celebration.