CRAWFORD | A day later, Baffert still warmed by the glow of Pharoah's Crown
Baffert said the accomplishment hadn't come close to hitting home yet. It showed. He seemed in awe, almost, of every little thing. The response of fans. The performance of his horse. Even the Triple Crown trophy. Cast in 1979 after Affirmed won the Triple Crown the year before, it has gone unawarded for 37 years, commuting from Kentucky to New York when a Triple Crown was in play, most recently with Churchill Downs director of communications Darren Rogers, who always removed it from the presentation stand when an effort came up short.
“I can't believe it's 37 years old,” Baffert said. “I was joking about it, if I didn't win it I was going to get a baseball bat and just crush it. I was going to destroy it, make every headline news, trainer flips out, loses it, whatever.”
He said the only souvenir he really wants from the weekend is a replica of that trophy, engraved with the information.
“I think I'm just going to fill it up with M&M peanuts and keep it there in the theater room,” Baffert said. “That's right.”
There was a poignant moment Sunday morning. Baffert years ago had gone to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and asked if he could meet the great Cigar. With the champion, Baffert petted him “like some kid,” Baffert said. He looked him in the eye, examined him from close range, tried to feel what it was like to be in the presence of an animal of that accomplishment.
On Sunday morning at Belmont, Mott came to Baffert's barn, and asked if he could spend a few moments with American Pharoah.
“I always thought if I ever had a really good horse like that, I'd want to share him with people,” Baffert said. “I know how I felt, here I was a horse trainer and I wanted to see. Bill came over today to see him, and to look at him, and pet him. He just really, we really work hard and we love these animals and when we see something special you want to really get up close and personal and look at him. It's pretty cool to share a horse like that.”
Now, Baffert knows, he'll have to share him with the horse racing world. He shared him with reporters Sunday morning. He shared him with NBC's Today show. American Pharoah stood calmly between Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza and only occasionally nudged one of them during a national television interview.
American Phraoah returned to Churchill Downs Sunday afternoon, and next Saturday, on Stephen Foster day at the track, will be paraded up and down the grandstand to what will no doubt be a huge ovation.
Baffert shook his head talking about the fans.
“Yesterday, I wasn't prepared for that when that horse won. And after he won, I was still numb like, Jill and I were just, like, it happened,” Baffert said. “The roar, the roar was insane. It was just something that I'll always remember, the roar of the crowd, and they kept yelling, way past the wire. I thought, that's the happiest I ever made anybody in my life. So it was pretty nice.
“You know it's all positive. I was saying it was the first time I've ever come to New York and didn't get one heckler. Not one. And Bode was waiting, he was prepared. We got a few hecklers at the Preakness. Usually I get, ‘Not today, Bob,' or something, or a boo. Nothing. There was a small group I talked about, a small group of Jamaicans who hang around the paddock. Used to be about 20 of them, now there's only 4 or 5 of them left, from the early days. So I was coming out and they looked at me and I said, ‘Boys what do you think?' And they were ‘Today's the day!” It was good. . . . This has been the most positive run of my life.”
It's also been a family time. Baffert has had his wife, and all of his children from two marriages were at the Belmont. They family went out to a quiet dinner Saturday night, with Baffert's brother and sister and a few others.
That time is coming to a close now, and it's back to regular work. And horse racing will return to its regular business — but with a Triple Crown winner. What it will mean for the sport, Baffert doesn't know. He think's it'll mean good things for as long as American Pharoah is able to run.
“I feel really good about the sport right now,” Baffert said. “It amazed when when I walked down that chute, and I thought, ‘This is the greatest sport in America.' The horses love to run. They want to run. It's what they're bred for. And to share them with everybody else, to be here in New York, and the fans here kept coming back for more after all the years we went through, and what happened last year and everything else. It's just been the best feeling in the world.”
Baffert says American Pharoah will spend at least one week in Kentucky, then return to California. He doesn't know where he'll run next, but said he would not take him out of training. He suspects the colt could run three more races, with the Breeders Cup Classic at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., being the last — if all goes well.
“I don't know yet,” Baffert said when asked when the colt will next run. “I want to sit down and decide how much time we'll give him and then decide. We'll make sure that he's hitting on all cylinders. When I do run him, it's very important for him to be at his best when I run him back.”
For now, Baffert says he'll keep trying to take it all in. After all he's been through, the Triple Crown near misses, the loss of his parents, his heart attack in 2012, he said he's more appreciative, and that he was more ready to win a Triple Crown now than he was 17 or 18 years ago. He just had to find the right horse, and maybe the right mindset.
“For some reason I still think it's a spiritual thing,” Baffert said. “I feel like my parents had something to do with it. That's why this has been so special to me. It's turned me into a big softy crybaby at times. . . . I'm just very grateful to everyone. And I'm really blessed to have gotten this horse. In the end, you only win it if you have a really talented, special horse. And there's no excuses. Either they do it or they can't do it.”
After 37 years, Baffert is glad he's the guy who ran across one that could, and that he'll get the chance to share him for a little while longer.
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