How a little-known Arizona college program shaped Bob Baffert and horse racing’s future

06/07/2018

At best he was a reluctant student, more comfortable in his father’s school of hard knocks than a formal classroom. But his mother, a former special education teacher turned principal, insisted her children go to college. So he enrolled at the University of Arizona and then worked his own compromise. In the mornings, he’d head over to Rillito, a racetrack in Tucson, to gallop horses at $5 a mount, and in the evenings he’d hang out with his fraternity brothers. In between, he’d go to class.

Some 40 years later, the reluctant student is the equivalent of a Rhodes Scholar. On Saturday, Bob Baffert will saddle Justify, the Belmont Stakes favorite, with eyes on his second Triple Crown in three years. In Arizona and at other racetrack outposts around the country, a collection of students will watch with especial fervor, rooting on their most famous alum. Baffert is a graduate of Arizona, and more specifically of a little known and one-of-a-kind college program, Arizona’s Racing Track Industry Program where, yes, students study horse racing. The extreme niche, four-year degree program includes about 30 students annually, some literally aiming to follow in Baffert’s footsteps as trainers, and others branching out into the business side of the sport. All of them, though, share one thing — a reverence for the sunglass-wearing, white-haired king of horse racing.

“He’s a legend,’’ says current RTIP student, Chris Chatters, his voice dropping to an awed whisper. “I mean, other people talk about Michael Jordan and LeBron, but when I think of the greatest of all time, I think of him.’’

Baffert is the first to admit that his isn’t necessarily the transcript the school should hold up as evidence of its success in fostering the next generation in horse racing, but he’s a big believer in RTIP. By and large, horse racing isn’t a business you can learn in a classroom. Most insiders tend to come up via parental or familial influence or happen upon a track and fall in love. But with the sport trying to broaden its reach to younger fans and facing a curious intersection now with the legalization of sports betting, educating the sport’s future seems even more crucial.

“You can throw me in a room with billionaires or ordinary people, and I’m comfortable with both of them. That’s what really helped me,’’ says Baffert. “Teaching people about horse racing, about the business, that can only make it better for everyone and I think horse racing, it’s in your blood. Once it’s in your blood, you can’t get rid of it. If you have that, then Arizona is a good place to go.’’

Baffert was raised on a ranch in Nogales, Arizona. His father, Bill (everyone called him The Chief) kept cattle, raised chickens for a while, and eventually bought a few quarter horses, carving a dirt track in a hayfield on the property and tossing his 10-year-old son on the horses’ backs for morning rides. The boy was hooked, so smitten by the sport that he even tried the unforgiving life of a jockey for a span. But when his mother, Ellie, insisted he also get a degree, Baffert enrolled at Arizona. It was close and more, he already loved the place.

His parents were football season-ticket holders and would drop their seven kids off in the south end zone of the stadium, an area reserved for kids known affectionately as the Knothole. Baffert still has fond memories of being part of what he calls the “Knothole gang,’’ especially the heated rivalry games with Arizona State.

“They had the Malone brothers (Benny and Art) and they just destroyed us,’’ he says of the Sun Devils. “We hated ASU.’’

The RTIP program was in its infancy then, begun by racing executives who thought the sport needed more people with degrees, and worked to connect its students with professionals via internships. Baffert had a chance at one himself, at Keeneland Racetrack in Kentucky. He was supposed to work in the office there, but when he learned he was expected to return to school and write a report on the experience, he balked. “I would have been Bob Baffert, the guy who worked at the office and got fired for partying all night,’’ he says with a laugh. But Baffert, already worldly in the equine side of things, took courses to learn about the business of racetrack management, learning about the economics of the sport and the impact from gambling dollars.

The program has broadened considerably since then. Though graduates today still hold the same degree as Baffert – a bachelor’s in animal science – the coursework is even more involved, designed for students who want to pursue careers in everything from marketing and media relations to bloodstock management.

“One of the biggest issues at the track, so often you see the horsemen have one perspective and the track management another,’’ says Wendy Davis, the director of the program. “Depending on which side they’re leaning toward, our students tend to come in thinking the same way, but then they take the different courses and their eyes are opened up.’’

Mitch Gerson didn’t touch a horse until he was 18. Now 23, he’s spent this summer in Saratoga, shepherding horses in and out of a cold saltwater spa and salt chamber. That he loves his current job is only slightly less surprising that he’s doing the job at all. Gerson grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, more interested in the betting side of horse racing than the actual animals. An uncle taught him how to handicap, and he learned a keen eye for picking winners, figuring the sport would be little more than a fun pastime. But the older he got, the more intrigued he grew, becoming fascinated about how trainers determined individual horse’s campaigns.

By the time he enrolled at the University of North Florida, Gerson was pretty sure he wanted to work as a trainer, spending two summers alongside Chuck Spina, a trainer out of Monmouth, New Jersey and an RTIP grad. Spina convinced Gerson to transfer, suggesting that he also open his eyes to other racing avenues besides training. “He didn’t do a very good job,’’ Gerson says. “I still want to be a trainer.’’ After his first year at Arizona, he interned for Todd Pletcher, arguably the program’s other most noteworthy alum, and now is with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

Just five years into his new career path, Gerson says he already feels like he’s grown exponentially, no longer intimidated by the big operations that the top trainers command. At Saratoga, McLaughlin has some 120 horses but with each barn fairly individualized, Gerson has slid in comfortably to his new niche, learning about the benefits of the spas to help heal injuries and stimulate tired animals. “Even though I didn’t grow up in the industry, and I’m on something of a non-traditional path, I already know this is the right thing for me,’’ he says.

Abel Zander knows a thing or two of non-traditional paths. He was at a bachelor party on the day of the 2002 Belmont Stakes and, a “sucker for an underdog,’’ decided to put some money down on 70-1 shot Sarava. That same year Baffert had his second shot at a Triple Crown, with heavily favored War Emblem. But War Emblem stumbled out of the gate, and Sarava chased down Medaglia d’Oro for the win. Zander picked up the bar tab for the bachelor party but thought little more of his big win. The Chicago native had taken a stab at sales, worked in the warehouse industry, and even latched on for a time with Second City in the hopes of scoring a future in acting. Nothing stuck. In between jobs, he and his brother would occasionally pop into Arlington to bet a few races, but Zander realized that, Sarava notwithstanding, he wasn’t exactly a learned gambler.

“My parents eventually said, ‘You know there’s a horse racing program at Arizona, maybe you should check it,’’’ Zander says. His research led him to the program’s list of famous graduates and Zander, recognizing the legitimacy of it, enrolled.

He just finished his second year in the RTIP. He’s 38 years old. Unlike Gershon, Zander is leaning toward the business side of the sport, looking forward to a future in either track management or simulcasting but he also is trying to think outside of the small American racing box. He’s studying Arabic, eyeing perhaps a future in the United Arab Emirates, where the sport is popular. “I had no idea how many aspects there were to this – what goes into putting together a race meet, all of the work that’s involved, the track management,’’ Zander says. “I had no idea what I was getting into.’’

Chris Chatters did. Unlike Gerson and Zander, he is of the old school horse racing insider. His uncles, Benard and Maynard Chatters, are New Orleans-based trainers and Chris was no more than four or five when he began regularly hopping out of bed at four in the morning to join them at the barns. He had dreams of being a jockey but genetics had other ideas. Chris grew too tall and slowly drifted toward other, more traditional, sports. He grew into a pretty talented soccer player but as the end of his high school career was nearing, he decided at the last minute (literally; he was too late for a fall enrollment) to go to Arizona for the RTIP. “It’s funny. I tell people what I’m going to school for and some think it’s so cool and some think it can’t be real,’’ he says.

He wants to follow in his family’s footsteps and become a trainer and for now is happy that, despite his size, he can gallop horses as an exercise rider. “I’m small,’’ he says. “Just not small enough to be a jockey.’’

At 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Delaware governor John Carney placed a $10 bet on the Phillies to beat the Cubs, officially ushering sports betting into the First State. He made the bet at Dover Downs, a hotel and casino that also offers live harness racing six months of the year. At the same time, nearby Delaware Park, which offers year-round thoroughbred racing, allowed its first sports bet. On Friday, Monmouth Park in New Jersey got in the action, Churchill Downs already is eyeing plans for its future and many people believe that racetracks across the country will take advantage of the Supreme Court ruling and welcome sportsbooks to their facilities.

Just what it means for the industry, though, is anyone’s guess. New Jersey’s efforts to challenge the law was spearheaded by the horse racing industry, former Governor Chris Christie offering sports betting as a salve to the struggling sport after the state stopped subsidizing it in 2011. Now with tracks poised to see a percentage of the sportsbook action, the benefits are obvious. But each state will be able to create its own regulations, and how the monies are shared across the board remains to be seen, which has led to more curiosity than full-bore optimism among those associated with horse racing.

The hopefuls contend that sports bettors are more in line with horse racing gamblers than casino goers and that a person who comes in to place a bet on a game might very well be inclined to stick around and bet on a race. The pessimists fret that the more mainstream sports, which offer less unpredictability and more available knowledge than horse racing, will mean gamblers take their betting money elsewhere. “We’re trying to wrap our heads around all of that, and figure out exactly what it means,’’ says Wendy Davis, the director of the RITP. “But I do know that, regardless, there have to be things in place to make sure we’re all moving forward.’’

Davis and her students hope that the RTIP will be such a landing place, and they already are using their coursework to imagine the impacts for horse racing’s new world. “I think it will help, but I’m not sure it will be a gold mine,’’ says Zander. “You have to think what the tax rate is going to be. You have to look, at the end of the year, what is that additional revenue?’’

In the interim, the RTIP will rely on its one sure thing to boost interest — Baffert. He is the ultimate legitimizer to a program that most people barely know exists, akin to counting Einstein among your physicist grads, or Bill Gates among your computer alums. Every day normal and accessible, he credits Arizona with teaching him how to deal with the toughest commodity in his business — people. As comfortable with grooms as Saudi Arabian sheikhs, he laughs at the notion that he is a student’s GOAT, chuckling when told that he was likened to Michael Jordan and LeBron. “That must be a really smart student,’’ he says. “Clearly he’s on the dean’s list.’’

Which wasn’t, of course, the case for Baffert, a reluctant student turned horse racing king.

 

Courtesy of Dana O’Neil, a senior writer for The Fieldhouse, has worked for more than 25 years as a sports writer, covering the Final Four, the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals and NHL playoffs. She has worked previously at ESPN and the Philadelphia Daily News and has been honored with multiple writing awards. Her book, Long Shots, chronicling Villanova’s journey to a national championship, was published in 2017.

Original story here.