The Dubai World Cup has been a consistent thread through the storied career of legendary American trainer Bob Baffert, who spoke to Sam Price about his experiences in the emirate and his high hopes for 2017 favourite Arrogate
Dubai World Cup sets out to attract the finest thoroughbreds from across the globe, and it has certainly achieved that in 2017. This year’s favourite for the main event, Arrogate, is the highest-rated horse ever to touch down in the UAE, and excitement is palpable as the strapping four year-old colt, winner of his last six starts, prepares to strut his stuff on the international stage. But while Arrogate is a newcomer to Dubai, his trainer, Bob Baffert, is a legend in this part of the world.
The charismatic American started out wearing cowboy boots and training “quarter horses” to run at breakneck speed over sprint distances in his native Arizona, and having proved himself just as adept with thoroughbreds on dirt tracks across the United States, he shot to global attention when sending Silver Charm to win the third edition of the Dubai World Cup in 1998.
“He was the first Kentucky Derby winner ever to race in Dubai, so it was a pretty huge thing,” reflects the trainer. “And we were running for US$6m, which at the time was unheard of as a purse for a horse race.
“It was very exciting, and even though Silver Charm was favourite to win, I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a challenge when you bring a horse halfway around the world to run in Dubai – there’s the heat, the barns are much further away from the track – but he ran an incredible race. He only just won, but it was a thrilling finish and a great way to start out in the Dubai World Cup.”
Three years later, Baffert repeated the trick with Captain Steve, and remains one of only two trainers, along with Godolphin’s Saeed Bin Suroor, to have won the prestigious race on more than one occasion. Victory for Arrogate would bring up a momentous treble, but it could have been very different for the popular white-haired handler, who suffered a life-threatening illness while overseeing Game On Dude’s preparations for the 2012 World Cup.
“I didn’t feel good when I was flying over,” he recalls. “And when I look back, I had symptoms; I was getting tired easily, and having trouble breathing.”
After waking up with acute pain in his chest and arm on the night of his arrival, Baffert was rushed to hospital, where the doctor confirmed he was having a heart attack – and that he had 100 per cent blockage in his main artery.
“For a while, I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to make it. It’s going to end here in Dubai’. But fortunately, the doctor fixed me up,” says Baffert, who had three stents inserted during emergency heart surgery, before receiving an unexpected visitor.
“That night I was in my room, and the doctor came in to tell me that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed was going to check on me. I could not believe it.
“It just shows you what kind of a man he is. He told me I was going to get through it, and gave me a really comforting feeling that the doctors and nurses were going to take care of me. And here I am!”
I think this race is important for Arrogate; it’s his legacy. That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with him
Afterwards, Baffert’s health improved dramatically, along with his training fortunes. In 2015, he achieved a career-defining success when saddling the brilliant American Pharoah to win a first US “Triple Crown” for 37 years, capturing the imagination – and the hearts – of millions of people in the United States and around the world. Sent off to the breeding sheds for a multi-million dollar stud career at the end of that campaign, American Pharoah’s retirement would have been expected to leave a huge void in Baffert’s stable – but along came Arrogate.
“When [American Pharoah] retired, I really thought, ‘I’m never going to have another horse like that’. But all of a sudden, Arrogate started improving,” says the 64-year-old.
A track record-breaking performance in the Travers Stakes was followed by victory over 2016 Dubai World Cup winner California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, marking Arrogate out as something special. And unlike American Pharoah, he is set to test his greatness overseas as a four-year-old.
“I think this race is important for Arrogate; it’s his legacy,” says Baffert. “That’s what I’m trying to accomplish with him.
“I call him ‘the Blue Locomotive’, because once he gets running he has this ridiculous long stride. When he’s turning in and he’s close to the lead, that’s when he really likes to turn it on. And hopefully we’ll see that in the World Cup.”
Victory in Saturday’s showpiece would make Arrogate – who is owned by Juddmonte Farms – the highest-earning racehorse of all time, but it would carry much deeper meaning for his trainer, whose fondness for the emirate is evident.
“It’s always been a really positive experience every time I’ve come here,” he says. “Sheikh Mohammed is not only about presentation; he wants to leave an impression, so that when you visit Dubai and people ask what it was like, you say ‘Wow’.
"For me, every time I leave Dubai, I can’t believe what I’ve seen.”
Now, Baffert will cross his fingers that Arrogate leaves 60,000 racegoers at Meydan with a similar impression.