Picture southern California racing without Del Mar. Without Santa Anita. Without Bob Baffert.
Right now one is out of season. Another has had racing suspended. And the third has actually thought about the unthinkable.
“It’s one of those things where I’m going to have to make a big decision if I leave,” Baffert told VSiN in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t like to think about it, but it’s there. Am I going to have to?”
Wearing safety masks, Baffert and his wife Jill had spent the morning with a few dozen other racing supporters picketing outside the weekly meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. They hoped to convince leaders to allow Santa Anita Park to resume closed-door racing for the first time since the Department of Public Health ordered a shutdown March 27 as a safeguard against the coronavirus. This was despite the pushback by track management that Santa Anita has not had a positive test, even among the more than 750 people who live and work at its stables.
America’s most famous trainer, Baffert, 67, is in his 33rd year of racing in southern California. In a Hall of Fame career he has won 15 classics including five runnings of the Kentucky Derby. He also has the sport’s only two Triple Crowns in that third of a century.
He has also seen the sport come under siege the past two years at Santa Anita, first with a rash of racehorse deaths and now with the coronavirus shutdown. But he has also seen other forms of erosion.
“We’re just not getting the help that we would like to get from the state,” he said. “Other states have (sports) gambling, the (slot) machines and whatever where they can supplement the purses. If we could have something like that, but we don’t. All we have is good horses, and we’re running short of good horses. It’s getting tougher and tougher, and regulation in California is tough. When you are running only three days a week it makes it tough. You can’t get good horses in.”
Without any races for the past month, Baffert and other Santa Anita trainers have been forced to stand pat or absorb the cost of shipping horses to active states like Arkansas. That is where Baffert is running two of his best Kentucky Derby contenders – Charlatan and Nadal – in Saturday’s two divisions of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
“I’ve sent a few horses with Jimmy (Barnes, his assistant) to Oaklawn Park, and we’ve been shuffling back and forth,” Baffert said. “But the expense is pretty high flying these horses in there. So they had better win to pay for their flight.”
Because of that Baffert said that if he actually were to make a move, he would not want to split his stable.
“I’d have to leave everything,” he said. “You can’t split it up. You have to be all in. I’m not quite there yet.”
Baffert pointed out that his clients are not based in California but back east. “They’re with me because of me. They want to be with me, but they would rather be running on the east coast.”
Right now he is waiting to see first what L.A. County supervisors might do. Tuesday’s passage of a “Roadmap to Economic Recovery” was regarded by racing advocates as a positive sign, but the green light still had yet to be given to get Santa Anita going again.
“These next couple weeks, if Santa Anita doesn’t open up soon, it’s going to get be hard to get those horses to come back,” Baffert said. “I’m going to stay here in California, but eventually if there’s nobody to run against it’s going to be tough. That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Here is a preview of the full interview with Baffert, which will be posted Friday morning as part of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, available at VSiN.com/podcasts, sponsored by 1/ST BET.