Bob Baffert finds peace at home as he pursues a Breeders' Cup record

DEL MAR, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 05: Trainer Bob Baffert looks on in the winners circle.
Trainer Bob Baffert looks on in the winners circle after his horse Corniche won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Del Mar in 2021. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

Seeing Bob Baffert in the winner’s circle after a Breeders’ Cup race is nothing unusual. In fact, it’s happened 18 times.

And seeing Baffert wander around Santa Anita’s Clocker’s Corner in the morning, stopping for photos, chatting up old friends and people he just met for the first time, it seemed to energize the 70-year-old trainer.

The Breeders’ Cup, especially at Santa Anita, and its participants are a tonic for the soul, he says.

“A horse is the best distraction if you are down, if you are depressed,” Baffert said. “A lot of people have horses and it just gets you away from the real issues in life. And they bring you so much joy. They are the best therapy.”

There’s also a lot of money involved, around $31 million to be doled out over Friday and Saturday. The first day there are five races, all restricted to 2-year-olds. On Saturday, there are nine more races.

Read more: The last stand of Bob Baffert, horse racing's most successful and embattled trainer

Baffert has nine horses entered and two wins would tie him with Wayne Lukas for the all-time number of wins.

The centerpiece on Friday is the Juvenile, a major Kentucky Derby prep race, even though in 39 years only two horses have won both the Juvenile and Derby: Street Sense in 2006 and 2007 and Nyquist in 2015 and 2016.

Baffert has won the Juvenile five times. The major twist for the last few years is that Baffert is ineligible to run in the Kentucky Derby after a positive medication test on Medina Spirit. The case is still being litigated. Churchill Downs initially banned him for two years and then extended it one more year even though Baffert has had no medication positives since 2021.

Still, his program is built around getting 2-year-olds ready to run in Triple Crown races the following year. The last two years Baffert has handed off those horses to former assistant Tim Yakteen to qualify for the Derby.

Baffert has three entrants in Friday’s $2 million race. Prince of Monaco and Muth are the 4-1 second favorites on the morning line. Wine Me Up (15-1) is also entered. The favorite is Locked (7-2) for trainer Todd Pletcher. Timberlake, for Brad Cox, is also listed at 4-1.

Baffert isn’t tipping his hand at which horse he likes best.

Read more: Kentucky Derby 2021: Medina Spirit wins to give Bob Baffert record seventh win

Prince of Monaco is undefeated in three starts but has never run farther than seven furlongs. The Juvenile is a 1 1/16 mile race.

“He’s the question mark because he’s the only one who hasn’t done two turns,” Baffert said. “I don’t see why he can’t go two turns. Usually the first time they do it’s their best race. I just hope he doesn’t get into a speed duel with my other horse, Wine Me Up.

“Prince of Monaco ran a couple of huge races at Del Mar. They were fast races, so I wanted to come in here and run him fresh.”

Muth, a $2-million purchase, and Wine Me Up ran on Oct. 7 and finished one-two in the Grade 1 American Pharoah.

“Last time I thought Muth would be on the lead,” Baffert said. “He didn’t make it but then came late and poured it on. He’s not one dimensional. I didn’t know he was capable of that because the race before, he went out really fast and stopped.”

Read more: A shaky start, but Breeders' Cup aims to shake trend of high-profile horse deaths

Wine Me Up is the problem child of this trio.

“Wine Me Up got really wound up,” Baffert said. “He had trouble with the [lead] pony. I could tell he wasn’t happy. He was losing his composure. [Jockey Ramon Vasquez] brought him up to the gate early and handed him off to an assistant starter to hold him. It was pretty smart on his part.

“I told him, ‘I like what you did. You gave that horse a chance and you saw what was happening and you did something.’ That’s horsemanship. I’m going to leave you on that horse. He could jump up [this race]. He’s a nice horse. All three of them are nice horses.”

Locked will be making his fourth start. He broke his maiden in his second race at Saratoga and then jumped into big competition and won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.

“His mile win at Saratoga you could argue, was the most impressive 2-year-old performance at the [Saratoga] meet and set him up well for the Breeders Futurity,” Pletcher said. “I like the way he’s been training since then and I think he has another move forward in him.”

Read more: Why Cody's Wish's last Breeders' Cup race is washed in tears and hope

If you were to think that the Santa Anita trainers have an advantage over those who ship horses in, Baffert isn’t sold on it.

“The only thing about having the home court, is you might run a few horses that you wouldn’t have shipped,” he said. “I got a couple in there that are kind of longshots. I think I’ve won more races on the road than I have here.”

Seven of Baffert’s 18 wins were at Santa Anita.

“At the end of the day, you need to have the best horse to win, and you need a great trip.”

Santa Anita will be hosting the Breeders’ Cup for a record 11th time.

Sign up for the L.A. Times SoCal high school sports newsletter to get scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.