There is a certain symmetry that trainer Bob Baffert won his 3,000th race with a horse named Thousand Words.
Baffert hit that milestone Saturday at Santa Anita when the 3-year-old colt won the Grade 3 $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes and put himself in the middle of the Kentucky Derby picture.
“A Thousand Words, three thousand, I’m telling you this stuff just [happens],” Baffert said. “I had a feeling it was going to be this horse. I was thinking about the 3,000 all the way around, believe me.”
There is nothing unusual about Baffert having a horse in the middle of Derby fever. In fact, he has a few horses possible for the first Saturday in May, including Eight Rings, Nadal and Authentic. But only Thousand Words is undefeated in three starts.
“What he did was pretty impressive,” Baffert said. “The way he was down [on the rail], taking dirt. Flavien [Prat] rode him like a good horse, patient. He didn’t panic.”
Thousand Words broke alertly, and Prat settled him on the rail near the back of the six-horse field. He started to make his move on the far turn of the 1 1/16-mile race and was second to stablemate High Velocity by a head at the top of the stretch.
“Once he turned for home, he found that little seam that opened up and I knew he’d have a chance,” Baffert said. “He’s a fighter.”
Thousand Words won by three-quarters of a length. As the favorite, he paid $3.20, $2.60 and $2.10. Royal Act was second, followed by High Velocity, Tizamagician, Encoder and Zimba Warrior.
“He put me in a good spot, and he was comfortable down there [on the rail],” Prat said. “He took the dirt [in his face] well, and when I asked him to run, he really accelerated.”
The 3,000 wins were only on North American thoroughbreds. Baffert has also won in Dubai and started his career as a quarter-horse trainer where by his estimation he won “700 or 800 races.”
Baffert, 67, started to transition from quarter horses to thoroughbreds in the mid-1980s. He had dabbled in thoroughbreds, winning his first race on Jan. 28, 1979, on Flipper Star at Rillito Race Track in Tucson. The purse was $600.
He moved to Los Alamitos and was at the top of the quarter-horse standings until he decided to move a couple of freeways over to Santa Anita. But he was struggling.
“The one that really made a difference was Presidents Summit, that set it off,” Baffert said. “I claimed him here. I went to Bob Baedeker [who was doing a tip sheet], and I said I need some help. So I claimed [this horse] for $15,000 and he won.
“I’ll never forget I was standing there on the steps [behind the winner’s circle] with my cowboy hat on. I was so excited when he won, I wanted to get in the winner’s circle picture and I followed him all the way back [to the barn]. I needed that because I wasn’t doing very well. Presidents Summit was the one I considered that really got it going.”
And now, thousands of victories and two Triple Crowns later, Baffert is the most recognizable figure in the sport. Despite the milestone, he is only 32nd in lifetime wins. Dale Baird won 9,445 races.
“If you’re in the business long enough, you’re going to get to numbers like that,” Baffert said. “The first 50 were probably the toughest to win. And 100 of them were life changers, big races and stuff.”
As is typical with Baffert, he has no idea where Thousand Words is headed.
“I don’t know where he’s going to show up next,” Baffert said. “I haven’t even thought about that.”
There were two other graded stakes Saturday.
United — who was second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf behind Bricks And Mortar, the eventual horse of the year — won the Grade 2 $200,000 San Marcos Stakes for horses going 1¼ miles on the turf. He sat patiently behind the leaders and then went four-wide in the stretch and won by half a length.
“He’s got a big lumbering stride, and you don’t want to get in the way of it,” said winning trainer Richard Mandella. “We just let him cruise along, and it worked out well.”
United, another favorite, paid $3.60, $2.40 and $2.10. Cleopatra’s Strike was second and Oscar Dominguez third. It was Prat’s second stakes win of the day.
Midcourt was a gate-to-wire winner in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes for horses going 1 1/16 miles on the dirt. He paid $6.40, $3.60 and $3.00. Two Thirty Five was second, and Combatant was third.
John Shirreffs was the winning trainer, and Victor Espinoza was the rider.