LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert may know the combination for cracking the Kentucky Derby so well that he can afford to bring the black cat to the race.
Baffert, who will saddle Real Quiet and expected favorite Indian Charlie at Churchill Downs on Saturday, as he tries to become the sixth trainer to win the Derby in successive years, will be joined this week by Bill Baffert, his rancher father from Nogales, Ariz.
Last year, as Baffert was winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm, and just missing a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont Stakes, his father stayed home while the trainer's mother, Ellie, and the rest of her family whooped it up in Louisville, Baltimore and New York. If you didn't bump into a Baffert along the Triple Crown trail, it meant that you were spending too much time in your hotel room.
Bill Baffert, 74, saw his son run some quarter horses in California in the early 1980s, but has only watched from afar, in the U.S.-Mexican border town of Nogales, as Bob Baffert has become the world's preeminent thoroughbred trainer.
"The Chief [the family's nickname for Bill] came to Los Alamitos a long time ago and I had a bad night," Bob Baffert said. "After that, he wouldn't come back. He didn't want to bring me any more bad luck."
Asked if he really considered himself a black cat, Bill Baffert said:
"I know what you're talking about, but in these parts they call it something different. They call it showing up with a carload of salt. If somebody's bad luck, they'll say, 'Here comes the salt.' "
When the senior Baffert was running quarter horses all over the Arizona fair circuit--and his son was riding many of them--there was a bad-luck character who was treated like a pariah.
"One day, Henry gave somebody a bear hug and the guy's luck turned bad," Bill Baffert said. "After that, if you'd even shake hands with Henry, you knew you weren't going to win the race. If you saw Henry coming, you'd tell him to keep away, or head in the opposite direction."
Indian Charlie is undefeated in his four races, and he and Real Quiet ran 1-2 in the Santa Anita Derby. Even Bill Baffert's presence among about 140,000 fans here Saturday may not be enough to stop both of them.
"I just don't want to be Henry," the father said. "The way I see it, it'll be one way or the other: I'll either bring Bob all the luck, or he'll get the carload of salt."
A sales job by Nori Van Buren, one of Bob Baffert's three sisters, finally convinced their father that he should attend this year's Derby. When Bill continued with his screed of bad luck, Nori told him, "That's baloney. You've got to enjoy these things when they come along. You might have a stroke tomorrow. You can't sit home and let all this pass you by."
So when Indian Charlie and Real Quiet reach the starting gate Saturday, Bill and Ellie Baffert and six of their seven children will be on hand.
It was Bill Baffert who introduced his son to horses.
"We lived out of town, and there weren't a lot of things to do," said Ellie Baffert, who retired as an elementary-school principal nine years ago. "We didn't have TV for a long time. But we were a close family. The evening meal was such a great time for everybody to get together. Bob and Bill [Bob's brother, named after their father] were the jokesters and they'd keep all of us in stitches."
Bob followed his father everywhere, Ellie said, wherever the family's quarter horses might be running.
"Starting when he was 11 or so, he was with me a lot of weekends," the senior Baffert said. "He started out just galloping the horses, then he began riding them in the races. It was something he just wanted to do. He was never afraid. But I was. I thought he might get hurt. Those young 2-year-old colts, once you got on them, might do anything."
Bob and his older brother Bill were capable of doing anything around the ranch, which started out as a chicken farm. Today, the Baffert spread, all 2,500 acres of it, is bereft of chickens but is home for 300 head of cattle.
Both Baffert boys had BB guns, and one night they sneaked into the chicken house and shot out all the lights.
"The lights were important," their father said. "We had grown from a few Easter-egg chickens to 16,500 of them, all in individual cages. We kept the lights on so the chickens wouldn't know it was wintertime. They'd molt otherwise and there'd be no eggs. So when the lights were shot out, we were in trouble. I said to Ellie, 'Who'd do something like that?' Then we found out it was Bob and Bill. That was the only time they did it."
Bob Baffert, 45, lives in Huntington Beach with his three sons, a daughter and their mother, Sherry, whom he met when she was working as a waitress at the Fish Emporium near the University of Arizona in Tucson. Bob's brother, P.A., and his sister, Deedee, managed the restaurant.
It took Bob Baffert eight years to earn his degree.