Before the crowd swells at Churchill Downs in Kentucky for the two-day Breeders' Cup starting Friday, horse racing's star trainer Bob Baffert stood all but alone in the rain-dampened stands at Santa Anita Park last week, barking at two of his workout riders through a walkie-talkie.
"You're going too . . . fast!" Baffert ordered. "Now you're slowing too much! Pick it up! Aww!"
Baffert's high standards may not have been met that moment, but the results of his yearlong push will be on display in a big way when he saddles 10 Breeders' Cup entries in nine races -- with two horses, Game On Dude and Prayer for Relief, in the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic.
To put this effort in perspective, Baffert has entered 57 horses in Breeders' Cup races since 1991, none in 2009 or last year.
Why load up now? Trying to send a message you're back by gutting the competition?
"No. It just happens that way. I just happen to have a lot of good horses this year, and they've added a lot of races. I don't want to go all the way over there with 30-to-1 shots. I have one horse who was a 'win and in,' Irish Gypsy in the Filly and Mare Sprint, so we're there because it didn't cost us a thing to get in. But that's my longest shot."
How many winners will you have?
"There's a ways to go still, and if I don't like something between now and then . . . that's why we're on pins and needles now. These fragile horses . . . my gut's in a knot. It's just no fun leading them up there with no chance to win. That's just an empty feeling. I want to win every one. That's what this is all about. The Breeders' Cup is different than the (Kentucky) Derby, where you're just happy you have one horse out of 35,000 foals who made it into the race. Breeders' Cup is your last chance to make serious money, and it's for championships, which impacts how much these horses earn to breed. Ton of money on the line."
Why'd you have such a good year?
"It was my best year since 2001. I had lost a lot of major clients since then, a Saudi prince, Bob Lewis, John Mabee. They died. Bob McNair, the Houston Texans' owner, sold out. You've got to move forward. You can't feel sorry for yourself. It's a lot of work. You have to win. You can't B.S. your way. You know what they say, 'Rumors die, facts live forever.' It's all about winning. I'm like a coach in the NFL. You better win. This year."
You've only won five of 57 Breeders' Cup races. Why?
"I've changed my approach. I freshen them up before we get there now. You can't use your hot pitcher three nights in a row. You've got to let your stars freshen up and back off them. It's not easy. When you get a good one, your clients want you to race him every week. They want the action. But I look back with experience now. I go by gut feeling. If we're smart, the really good ones will get it done for you."
How will you decide what to do in the Sprint, after Euroears had an incredible workout Oct. 24, and you have another talented entry, The Factor, who's capable of winning the Mile?
"Euroears' time was ridiculous, the fastest work I've ever witnessed in my life. His last race was a disaster at Belmont Park, but he's also set a track record at Del Mar. If he gets away in the Sprint, I'd feel good about it. The Factor's better in a one-turn mile, and if I had to make the decision now, it'd be the mile. But the decision is not due until Monday, and I don't make a decision until I have to. With Drill in the Juvenile and Secret Circle in the Juvenile Sprint, I'm in a good spot. I've been there before, you know, taking an Uzi to a picnic. You'll see my fastball pitchers out there."
You're sending jockey Chantal Sutherland aboard Santa Anita Handicap winner Game On Dude in the Classic. Is she qualified?
"Chantal's never ridden at Churchill Downs, but I'm telling her there's no thinking involved here: Go to the lead. She's excited, and she's capable of putting a good ride on the horse. She should get a lot of ride from him. Listen, I've had some great riders have bad rides. It happens. All of them throw interceptions, you know. We're going to send Game On Dude away, make him run, and he likes it when a horse goes with him. He's done it twice lately, hitting that half-mile pole, turning for home and it's 'Check, please!"'