For decades, the one of the most recognizable face associated with the University of Arizona belonged to a distinguished-looking older gentleman with perfectly groomed white hair. In the summer of 2015, the venerable Lute Olsen may well have been nudged aside by a UA grad with — if such a thing is possible — even whiter hair.
Bob Baffert ’77, a native of Nogales and graduate of the UA’s one-of-a-kind Race Track Industry Program, pulled off a feat that, over the past 37 years, had gone from being viewed as unlikely to highly improbable to no-way-it’ll-ever-happen-again. When the Baffert-trained American Pharoah cruised to victory in the Kentucky Derby and then followed it up with a defiantly athletic win in a torrential downpour in the Preakness two weeks later, the horse’s trainer found himself in a somewhat-familiar position.
Three other times, Baffert had horses in the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Silver Charm finished second in 1997 and Real Quiet placed second the following year. In 2002, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and finished a distant eighth. Industry insiders were wondering if the feat would ever be pulled off again.
After Seattle Slew, Secretariat, and Affirmed each won horse racing’s Triple Crown within a six-year span in the 1970s, the door suddenly slammed shut. Over a third of a century passed and while 12 different horses won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness during that time, none would go on to win the Belmont Stakes and capture the elusive Triple Crown.
The fourth time proved to be the charm for Baffert as American Pharoah bolted to the lead right out of the gate, held the front spot through the long backstretch, repelled a couple minor challenges coming out of the final turn, and then pulled away to win comfortably.
Baffert was suddenly the toast of the entire sports world, easily overshadowing those participating in the ongoing NHL and NBA playoffs (including the likes of UA alumni Steve Kerr ’87, Andre Igoudala, and Luke Walton ’02).
UA Race Track Industry Program Director Doug Reed had booked a spot at an industry conference in New York City months in advance. The conference ended the day before the Belmont, so he decided to stay over, perchance to be a witness to history.
“I’m glad I did,” says Reed. “It was a special day. There were so many Wildcat alums and fans there; it was like an Arizona event. After the race was over, I wanted to go congratulate Bob, but the crush of media around him was incredible. He definitely has rock-star status.”
Reed says that there has been a spike in media and student interest in the program recently due in part to the success of Baffert and fellow program alumnus Todd Pletcher. Baffert and Pletcher, among the most successful in horse racing history have been placed in the top three as money-making trainers in North America every year since 2009.
The two trainers were featured in the week leading up to the Belmont by USA Today, in a story that dwelled on the UA’s niche program — a quiet, 40-year success that is known to everyone in the industry but to few outside of it. The program has more than 600 alumni worldwide and is part of the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“We have graduates all over the country,” says Reed. “There is actually a greater demand for our interns than we have supply.”
A couple of days after the historic achievement, the UA introduced its new baseball coach, Jay Johnson. The press conference was a star-studded affair, with Rich Rodriguez, Greg Byrne, and Sean Miller in attendance, along with former UA baseball coaches Jerry Kindall and Jerry Stitt. In addition to excitement around hiring a new baseball coach, another hot topic of conversation in the room: Bob Baffert.