September 24, 2023

From Foes to Family in Triple Crown bid Reunion

Trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert
Trainers D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert (c) Jon Kral/Maryland Jockey Club

D. Wayne Lukas, Elliot Walden and Bob Baffert have history

If an observer of the 1998 Triple Crown season went into a coma following Victory Gallop defeating Real Quiet in the Belmont Stakes and woke up 20 years later ahead of this year’s Test of the Champion, she might be shocked at the storylines.

Bob Baffert being back is no surprise, but training for Elliot Walden might be. Walden trained Victory Gallop, whose nose victory over Real Quiet denied Baffert a Triple Crown for a second time following Silver Charm’s defeat in 1997.

Baffert missed the Triple Crown again in 2002 with War Emblem but finally got the elusive three bagger in 2015 with American Pharoah’s win. Now he’s back again with WinStar Farm’s Justify and a chance to join Jim Fitzsimmons as the only trainer to condition two Triple Crown winners.

“It was a fun rivalry because [Walden] always said traffic trouble cost him a Derby, but then we beat him pretty good in the Preakness,” Baffert said of the 1998 Triple Crown season. “So then I would say he cost me a Triple Crown, but Elliott always says I cost him a Derby.

“I’m just glad he put me on the WinStar training squad,” Baffert said. “I’m very fortunate to be a part of that team, and when a former trainer sends you a horse you know there’s a respect there, so that’s meant a lot. What WinStar has done is incredible with two Derby winners in 9 years and a world class stallion roster.”

Walden has a lot of connections to Belmont Stakes past running in this year’s race. When Victory Gallop beat Real Quiet it was actually Bill Mott who saddled Victory Gallop because Walden was on crutches at the time following a pickup basketball game incident. Mott’s only classic win was with WinStar’s Drosselmeyer, but this year he has Hofburg for Juddmonte Farm. In 2016, Steve Asmussen trained WinStar’s Creator to Belmont Stakes glory, but this year he has Tenfold for Winchell Thoroughbreds.

“It’s a close knit family,” Walden said of the industry. “You’re trying to compete against each other and trying to win, but you also have relationships with people so even when you don’t win you feel OK about it. We’re all connected.”

Another surprise connection might be the friendship that Baffert and fellow Racing Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas have forged. They each have 14 classic wins between them, which is best in the history of the American Turf. Lukas will try to spoil Baffert’s Triple Crown bid with Bravazo.

Back in January, Baffert sent Mourinho to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas for the Smarty Jones Stakes. He deputized Lukas, who winters at Oaklawn, to pony the horse during morning training and saddle him before the race, which he won.

Lukas said Baffert told him, “Who would have thought 20 years ago that you’d be saddling my horses and [Donald] Trump would be president!”