Bob Baffertâ€™s career as a Thoroughbred trainer has earned him fourÂ Derby victories and enshrinement in the horseracing Hall of Fame. But as much as his biggest victories, itâ€™s his quick wit and glib schoolboy charm that have endeared him to a legion of fans.
Three times during that career, Baffert has taken a horse to New Yorkâ€™s Belmont Park with a chance to claim a Triple Crown.Â Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) each won the Derby and the Preakness for Baffert, but they failed to take the Crownâ€™s mile-and-a-half final jewel.
The first two were runners-up in the Belmont, with Real Quiet losing by a painful nose after appearing nearly unbeatable in the upper stretch.Â The speedy War Emblem lost all chance in his Belmont when he was slow from the starting gate.
A bid for something as rare as a Triple Crown can be a pressure cooker, but Baffert rarely offered a hint that he was experiencing anything extraordinary. When future Hall of Famer Silver Charm trained at Churchill Downs for his Belmont run, Baffert would arrive at the barn each morning, look to the Derby winnerâ€™s groom and offer a quick thumbs-up. If the groom responded in kind, Baffert would turn to visitors and smile.
â€œIf heâ€™s walking, Iâ€™m OK,â€ Baffert would say.
Baffert is preparing to embark on his fourth trip to New York with a Triple Crown on the line.Â Itâ€™s quite possible that his 2015 Derby and Preakness winner, Zayat Stablesâ€™ American Pharoah, is his strongest candidate to date.
A win in the June 6 Belmont Stakes would make Pharoah just the 12th Thoroughbred to complete the elusive three-race sweep and end a Triple Crown drought now in its 37th year.
Two weeks after a gutty victory in the Derby, American Pharoah romped by seven lengths to win the Preakness at Baltimoreâ€™s rain-soaked Pimlico. He then returned to Churchill Downs to train toward a possible Belmont run and Triple Crown bid.
The key word there is â€œpossible.â€Â Although his Derby and Preakness triumphs extended Pharoahâ€™s ongoing winning streak to six races, Baffert said after the Preakness that a run in the Belmont Stakes by his current star was far from a sure thing.
But that bid looks much more likely now, and should American Pharoah win the Belmont, May 26 will likely become remembered as a critical day in his journey.
It was on May 26 that Baffert brought jockey Martin Garcia with him to Churchill Downs on a whirlwind trip from California for American Pharoahâ€™s first workout since his Derby win more than three weeks earlier. The work would only cover a half mile, but Baffert was looking for any indication during those four furlongs that the first two legs of the Triple Crown had taken a toll on his star.
Baffert watched from the Clubhouse. Fans joined him below on the grassy new courtyard, having taken Churchill Downs up on an invitation to watch several Belmont Stakes candidates train during a special 15-minute session. Baffert eschewed his binoculars in favor of watching a larger-than-life American Pharoah on the trackâ€™s 15,224-square-foot â€œBig Board.â€
He looked on as Garcia, who had ridden Baffertâ€™s Dortmund to a third-place Derby finish, had the colt under a strong hold from the start of the work. Otherwise, Garcia barely moved as Pharoah cruised through a half mile in 48 seconds, then galloped out strongly past the finish line, around the first turn and well into the backstretch.
The work was the fifth fastest of 22 moves at the distance. But any view of Tuesdayâ€™s work â€“ be it Baffertâ€™s view on the â€œBig Board,â€ a spot along the rail with fans orÂ Garciaâ€™s vantage point from the saddle â€“ led to the same conclusion:Â With even minor encouragement from his rider, the graceful and long-striding Derby winner would have flown around the course.
American Pharoah had shown his trainer everything heâ€™d hoped to see.
â€œI could tell the horse was really enjoying it,â€ Baffert said.Â â€œHe showed like he had a lot of energy. When he hit the track, I was on the radio talking to Martin, and he really liked the way he felt, and he just took off going really easily. I told Martin to just let him keep going. I really liked the way he went.â€
Jockey Victor Espinoza will be in the saddle when American Pharoah enters the Belmont Stakes starting gate on June 6, but Garcia has been his regular partner during workouts.
â€œIâ€™m really happy with what he did,â€ Garcia said. â€œHe came back like (it was) nothing. He loves to run. Heâ€™s getting more mature,Â and I think right now heâ€™s starting to realize whatâ€™s going on, and he likes it.â€
Baffert had to see that American Pharoah was on his game to determine whether he should stay in the Triple Crown game. Heâ€™ll return to Kentucky next weekend for a final pre-Belmont Stakes work. If it hadnâ€™t been for Tuesdayâ€™s effort, Baffert might have decided he wouldnâ€™t need that return trip.
â€œI donâ€™t want to take him up there unless heâ€™s going to run his race,â€ Baffert said.Â â€œIf he was lethargic and didnâ€™t want to work, or didnâ€™t look good in the work today, then I would just take him home.
â€œJust the way he did it was the right way.Â Heâ€™s moving like his fluid self and came back the right way. Thatâ€™s Pharoah â€“ when heâ€™s on his game, thatâ€™s the way he looks.â€
Though impressive, the workout offered Baffert and American Pharoahâ€™s admirers no guarantees regarding his Belmont run.Â But at the same time, the strength of that training move offered little encouragement to would-be rivals, who await him in New York for â€œThe Test of the Champion.â€
Those rivals received this message: American Pharoah, a winner of six consecutive races â€“ including the first two legs of the Triple Crown â€“ appears very much on his game, with fewer than two weeks before the final jewel.
And he just might be getting better and stronger.
Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs