When Bob Baffert heard the news, he gasped and said: "You mean I bought Forrest Gump?"
It was the morning after the Kentucky Derby, and Baffert just heard that Real Quiet, a yearling he picked out for $17,000, had undergone surgery six months before he'd bought him. Surgeons had inserted wire and screws in both knees to try to straighten his feet.
What Baffert bought, as it turned out, was the winner of the Kentucky Derby. And at 5: 27 p.m. tomorrow, racing's version of Forrest Gump will try to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown: the 123rd Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
The story behind the purchase and development of Real Quiet offers clues to the secrets of success behind one of the country's hottest trainers. Although Baffert, 45, is quick with the one-liner, he is also a shrewd and insightful horseman.
"He buys good horses," said Mike Pegram, for whom Baffert bought Real Quiet. "He surrounds himself with good people. And he never comes off as a know-it-all. Even though he does a lot of talking, he does a lot of listening, too."
By the time Baffert bid $17,000 on the crocked yearling for Pegram, the wire and screws had been removed, and the young horse stood a little straighter. Still, he was not your poster-boy yearling. Yet Baffert bought him anyway.
"He saw a beautiful body," said Pegram, one of Baffert's best friends dating to their quarter-horse days. "He could envision what that horse would look like when he grew into it."
Pegram, who grants Baffert total control in picking horses, said that is perhaps his greatest skill. Baffert has trouble explaining it -- or maybe he just prefers not to reveal trade secrets.
"I have a certain horse that fits my mold," Baffert said. "And he was one of them."
J.B. and Kevin McKathan, Florida bloodstock agents, help Baffert pick horses.
"We buy horses that look athletic," Kevin McKathan said without elaborating. "We buy something that can get two turns, and then we hope for the best."
The McKathans consulted with Baffert on Real Quiet as well as Silver Charm, for whom another Baffert owner paid $85,000 as a 2-year-old. The colt was also a bargain with whom Baffert won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Dubai World Cup.
For slightly more than $100,000 -- a fraction of what some pay for young horses -- Baffert bought a pair that turned into a royal flush.
April Mayberry, a trainer at Churchill Downs who shares a barn with Baffert, offered insight into Baffert's methods.
A trainer such as D. Wayne Lukas, who spends millions for young horses, Mayberry said, "buys them when they're as good as they're going to look."
But Baffert usually spends far less -- and gets a greater return on investment -- because, Mayberry said, "he leaves a little room for improvement."
With Real Quiet, Baffert left a lot of room.
Last fall, whenever he ticked off the names of the top 2-year-olds in his barn, he never mentioned Real Quiet. That's because the colt was an early flop on the racetrack.
He finished seventh in his first race, and then lost five more, including two at The Downs at Santa Fe, now closed. But then he began to get the hang of it when Baffert added blinkers and distance.
Baffert compares Real Quiet to Indian Charlie, the colt with "raw brilliance" who entered the Kentucky Derby 4-for-4 but finished third.
"Indian Charlie's a faster horse than Real Quiet," Baffert said. "He's got more natural ability.
"So with Real Quiet, I have to do more just to stay even -- like some people have to study a little harder to get it right. They'll JTC take the test and get the same grade, but they had to study a little harder. That's how The Fish is."
"The Fish," by the way, is Real Quiet's nickname. He got that because his turned-out feet weren't the only odd thing about him. He looked great from the side, but he looked so thin from the front he resembled a tropical fish.
Still, he could run, and he was strong and athletic. Baffert put him through his paces.
"I don't think Bob does things a whole lot different from other trainers," said Mayberry, the Churchill Downs trainer. "But he does things Bob's way.
"His horses have to be strong, because he wants them to work fast. He feels the good horses can withstand hard training.
"But at the first sign of anything wrong, he backs off, maybe sends them to the farm for several months. That's why he's got 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds still running."
Baffert said he works horses fast -- meaning he sends them on fast workouts between races -- because he always has, dating to his years training quarter horses.
"I've done it all my life with quarter horses, the same thing," Baffert said. "When I had quarter horses, I used to let them bounce away from the gate, and everybody'd say, 'Why'd you let that horse go so fast?' But it worked. It worked for me."
"I go through the training. Then I run them. Then I back off and don't run them for a while. I'm in a position where I can do that. My owners don't pressure me to run when my gut feeling says something's not right."
That's why he didn't bring Indian Charlie to the Preakness, Baffert said. His gut feeling wasn't right. And when he told the horse's owner what he intended to do, the owner said OK.
Last year after the Belmont -- after Silver Charm barely missed winning the Triple Crown -- Baffert backed off until December. It perhaps cost Silver Charm the title of Horse of the Year, but now Baffert has an outstanding 4-year-old he plans to race at least another year.
As for Real Quiet, once he figured out how to win he apparently decided he liked to compete. After beginning his career 0-for-6, he finished first or second in five of his next seven races.
The only clunker was an eighth-place finish -- last by 22 1/2 lengths -- in the slop at Golden Gates. That brings us to the final oddity about Real Quiet. The Fish does not like water.
Pub Date: 5/15/98