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Health scare put Triple Crown into perspective for Baffert

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Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert says he has ‘really mellowed out’ following 2012 heart attack.

Three years after suffering a heart attack, Bob Baffert admits he’s a changed man.

On Saturday, he will get his record fourth shot at saddling a Triple Crown winner when American Pharoah goes to post in the $ 1.5 million Belmont Stakes.

Baffert has been in this spot three times before — with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) — and has watched the Crown slip away all three times.

“I’ve really mellowed out,” says the 62-year-old Hall of Fame trainer. “I appreciate it a lot more. The older you get the tougher it’s going to be. I always wondered if I’d get another shot at it. The only thing that is missing is the Triple Crown.”

Baffert’s career is full of highlights. He was elected to racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009. He has saddled the winner of the Kentucky Derby four times, the Preakness Stakes six times and the Belmont Stakes once. He’s saddled 11 Breeders’ Cup winners, including Bayern in last year’s Classic, and has been named champion trainer three times.

His heart attack came in March of 2012 while he was preparing a runner to race in the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. He was halfway around the world.

“That scare in Dubai put things in perspective for him,” says his wife Jill Baffert, the mother of his 10-year-old son Bode. “He steps back a little bit now. He doesn’t always travel with his horses or he may not go to the track on a Sunday afternoon to watch the races.”

Baffert has even cut back on the amount of horses he trains — from 150 to fewer than 100 — and tries to concentrate on quality with horses aiming for the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders’ Cup races.

Still, he has never captured racing’s ultimate prize, the Triple Crown, and now he has a chance to have American Pharoah join the likes of Secretariat, Citation, War Admiral and Seattle Slew, to name a few.

Silver Charm won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes by a head, but didn’t see Touch Gold come until too late and settled for second in the Belmont, losing the crown by three-quarters of a length. Real Quiet’s loss was even closer. After besting Victory Gallop in both the Derby and the Preakness, Real Quiet turned for home in the Belmont with a four-length lead in the stretch before being nailed on the wire by Victory Gallop, losing the crown by a nose. War Emblem wired them in the Derby, and just got up to take the Preakness, but lost all chance in the Belmont after stumbling badly at the start, rushing up into contention before weakening to eighth.

“I know the odds are against us,” Baffert says of himself and American Pharoah, who will try to become horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed last accomplished it in 1978. “You can talk all you want but I know we are up against it.”

Despite all of his accolades, Baffert says this Triple Crown is not about him; it’s about the horse.

“He’s a special horse,” Baffert says of American Pharoah, who pulled away en route to victory in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. “The other horses were very good horses. Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Point Given (won the Preakness and Belmont in 2001) were all deserving but I just feel something about this horse. You bond with these horses. He was the 2-year-old champion last year, the best of his crop and so far he’s the best of this crop. If he’s great he’ll do it. He deserves it. It’s more up to me to have him ready. I don’t blame the guys for missing the second leg. They’re waiting on him. I still feel we have the horse but he has to show up.”

When asked what makes American Pharoah special, Baffert quickly answers, “His stride. The way he moves. I never had a horse move like him — spring-loaded, efficient. The way he moves when he gets in that groove. That horse has taken us to another level. He’s a sweet, kind horse. My wife, Jill, cries after he wins. We want to do it for the horse. It’s about him now, and I’m just so glad I’m training him. I’m thankful and so grateful I’m training him. I’m so lucky he found me.”

Baffert also said he wants to do it for all the fans who will be on hand at Belmont Park, where attendance will be capped at 90,000 this year in an effort to avoid the problems fans faced last year, ranging from vendors running out of food and beverages to travel issues many had leaving by train or car.

Since Affirmed swept the three races in 1978, 13 horses have come to Belmont Park to try to become the next Triple Crown winner and they all failed, including I’ll Have Another, who scratched a day before the 2012 Belmont Stakes with a tendon injury.

“I don’t want to let those fans down,” Baffert said. “Every time it always gets me.”

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