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. If he was alone, he feels certain he would have been in denial and just ignored the chest pain. Would have continued to grab his chest and just hope the pain would eventually go away.
If Baffert's wife, Jill, was not with him in that hotel room on March 26, nobody commandeers that laptop, checking off heart attack symptoms one by one. Baffert had every one, except he was not nauseous. Then, just as he was asking his wife why the race was not on the laptop, he was in the bathroom, getting nauseous.
Jill called the paramedics. Halfway around the world from his Southern California home, Baffert, three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, was having a heart attack. If you are going to have a heart attack in a faraway place, Baffert, who was in Dubai to run two horses on the $25 million World Cup card on March 31, was in the right spot. The country's rulers own the Meydan race track 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 3 days, Baffert was back at the track. His horses didn't run very well in Dubai. He didn't much care.
"I thought I was invincible,'' Baffert said. "It was a wake-up call.''
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 for Bob and Jill's 7-year-old son, Bode, could very well be favored. This 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 very 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 very hard for what will be the hardest race of their lives.
"I'm feeling much, 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."
Baffert, a classic Type A in the 24/7 world of horse racing, has calmed down. His wife insisted.
"Ever since it happened, I've changed," he said. "I don't get so worked up about something. Still, I get excited. Sometimes I'd get overstressed. Right now, I just realize that I've got this second chance. I could easily have died in Dubai. If it would have happened on the plane I would have been toast.
"I used to worry about things that I shouldn't have been worrying about. If I can't change it, why worry about it? My wife keeps reminding me. I was telling her about the weather. She said, 'Bob, you can't change the weather, why are you worried about it?' I said, 'You're right.' She's been my best coach through all this."
Saturday, Baffert gets a chance to win his fourth Derby. Five weeks ago, he got a far more important chance. n