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Wilson: Would Bob Baffert leave California racing? Not likely

Racing’s top trainer has endured some tough times at Santa Anita the past two years

Bob Baffert has been a training fixture in Southern California since switching from quarter horses to thoroughbreds full time in 1991. He’s won the Santa Anita Derby a record nine times, became Del Mar’s all-time winningest trainer in 2017 and is as recognizable a figure as there is in the sport.

So it sent ripples through the industry this week when Ron Flatter of the Vegas Stats and Information Network reported that, because of all the ills that have plagued Southland racing the past two years, Baffert has wondered whether it’s time to pull his star-studded stable out of California and move elsewhere.

But relax, folks. It’s not likely to happen.

It sounds to me like Baffert is going to take a page out of British singer and songwriter Dido’s 2003 hit song “White Flag” and stick it out. He’s going to go down with the ship. He’s not going to put his hands up in surrender. You won’t find any white flags above his barn door.Not if he can help it.

“I’ve known Bob for decades, and I can tell you that’s the last thing that Bob Baffert, (wife) Jill and their family would want to do,” Greg Avioli, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said. “I do not expect that to happen. It would be a sad day for California racing.”

Another industry official who knows Baffert well and wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject said he would be shocked if the white-haired trainer relocated to New York, Kentucky, Florida or Arkansas.

“Bob’s sending a lot of horses a lot of places (to race) and bringing ’em back here, where he’s going to run ’em,” the source said. “Bob’s not going anywhere. There’s no chance of Bob going anywhere.”

Baffert loves Santa Anita. It’s his favorite track. It’s in his own backyard, but there’s only so much these horsemen can take.

The sport was put under the microscope last year when 37 horses died at Santa Anita. This year, because of COVID-19, racing has been halted at the track since March 27. TrackĀ  management sent a letter to horsemen on Wednesday, telling them to be ready to go May 15 if L.A. County’s stay-at-home order is lifted and the track receives the go-ahead from the county health department to resume racing.

But there are no guarantees during this pandemic.

“That’s (leaving) a long ways off,” Baffert said in a telephone interview with the Southern California News Group. “I was just explaining to (Flatter) that if we don’t start (racing) soon, that’s what’s going to happen, these guys (trainers) aren’t going to come out here.

“We’ve lost (about) 300 horses this meet, they’ve left. About 200 hundred left in January (before racing was suspended). We can’t afford that. Two hundred horses that were ready to run.”

But would Baffert really leave California?

“That’s a last resort,” he said. “It’s either retire or leave California, and I think I’d rather retire. I can’t picture myself anywhere else.”

One place his horses have been visible lately is Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. He’s started 11 horses at the current meet and won with six of them (55 percent). He’s got Charlatan and Nadal entered in the split Arkansas Derby on Saturday and is running his highly regarded 3-year-old filly, Gamine, on the undercard.

“They’ve bent over backwards,” Baffert said of Oaklawn Park management. “The Cella family (owners) should get an Eclipse Award. They’ve been a savior for the sport, and they didn’t have to split it (Arkansas Derby). They did it just to let all those guys run.”

But it’s not cost effective to send horses back and forth from California to Arkansas.

“I’ve run a few at Oaklawn, but the expense of flying ’em there, you can’t do that (consistently),” he said. “I’m doing it just to keep our sanity and get a few races run.”

It’s like Southern California racing has been in the twilight zone since early 2019.

“It’s been crazy,” Baffert said. “We can’t catch a break. We had a chance to get the jump on sports (during the coronavirus lockdown). They said we were going to be the first ones to go and we were the last ones standing, and then they took the rug out from under us.”

But Baffert’s still standing, and he figures to be around these parts for quite a while longer.