LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was a Monday morning in Dubai, a few hours before dawn. In New Mexico, it was still Sunday afternoon, and one of Bob Baffert's horses had just won the Sunland Oaks.
Congratulatory texts woke him, so he decided to check out one of his horses in the Sunland Derby. He fired up a laptop to watch online.
Baffert, 59, was feeling something in his chest he knew he was not supposed to be feeling. Had he been alone, he feels certain he would have been in denial and just ignored the chest pain. He would have continued to grab his chest and just hope the pain eventually would go away.
Had Baffert's wife, Jill, not been with him in that hotel room on March 26, nobody would have commandeerd that laptop, checking off heart-attack symptoms one by one.
Baffert had every one, except he was not nauseated. Then, just as he was asking his wife why the race was not on the laptop, he was in the bathroom, getting nauseated.
Jill called the paramedics. Halfway around the world from his Southern California home, Baffert, three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, was suffering a heart attack. If you are going to have a heart attack in a faraway place, Dubai is the right spot. Baffert was there to run two horses on the $25 million World Cup card on March 31. The country's rulers own the Meydan Racecourse and some of the world's best horses. They made certain Baffert got the best care imaginable.
He had two major blockages. His left anterior descending artery was completely blocked. Stents were inserted in two arteries and, in just three days, Baffert was back at the track. His horses didn't run very well in Dubai. He didn't much care.
"It was a wake-up call," Baffert said.
Given a second chance, Baffert is at Churchill Downs this week with two Derby horses, one serious, the other less so. Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, named after Bob and Jill's 7-year-old son, Bode, is favored at 4-1.
These will be Derby horses 22 and 23 for Baffert. He won it with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002). Each of those horses went on to win the Preakness. Bodemeister does not have their racing experience but does appear to have their talent.
Most of today's trainers are cautious with their Derby horses, not taking any chances, rarely working them hard. Baffert does not train that way. He puts pressure on his horses, training them hard for what will be the hardest race of their lives.
"I'm feeling much better," Baffert said. "I've lost weight, and I needed to lose weight anyway. Every day I get stronger and stronger. I've been exercising and eating well. I've never eaten so much fish in my life. Things are good."