Baffert on American Pharoah: 'maybe this is the one'

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

May 28th, 2015

Listening to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert talk American Pharoah on Thursday's NTRA conference call, I was buoyed by an increasing hope that our Triple Crown drought could really be nearing its end. It would be going too far to describe his tone as confident, but reading between the lines, he was giving fans plenty of reason to be encouraged.

Of course, Baffert knows all too well how difficult it is for a three-year-old to sweep the demanding series. He's been down this same road three times before, with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002), who turned the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1) double before their dreams were dashed in the Belmont (G1).

Baffert himself cited the usual things to worry about:

The Triple Crown grind: you don't really know how much it has taken its toll on American Pharoah "until he runs the race." Baffert compared it to a pitcher who's "already pitched eight innings."

"A lot of little things" that can affect the big picture: e.g. the van ride. Although Baffert didn't explicitly mention it in this context, he did discuss how "sensitive" American Pharoah is to noise, which is why he wears the cotton earplugs. The noise affected Pharoah both before and during the running of the Derby, where he was keyed up in the paddock, and even "came off the bridle" turning for home -- "he wasn't tired; it was the roar of the crowd."

The weather: when it's "windy and dry," the Belmont Park track can become "deep, loose, powdery," making it tough to handle and "ridiculously tiring."

The 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont: "We don't know" how Pharoah will cope with it. Emphasizing the importance of pedigree, Baffert noted "you can't train 1 1/2 miles into them."

Everyone's gunning for you: "You're the target," and you "get a lot taking runs" at you.

And the indispensable ingredient: "A lot of it is just racing luck," Baffert said, referring to the last-second heartbreaks suffered by both Silver Charm and Real Quiet in their Belmont bids.

"It's not going to be easy," Baffert summed up. "The odds are against it."

Even with those caveats (no pun intended for the 1983 Belmont winner) in mind, the positives came across pretty strongly.

When commenting on why he sent Pharoah back to Churchill to train for the Belmont, Baffert reminded us that he took the same route with 2001 Belmont romper Point Given -- "and he won by 13 lengths," the Hall of Famer noted with a chuckle.

"I've had so much luck shipping from Churchill Downs to New York," and these runners "never looked like they were getting tired."

In one respect, Baffert put Pharoah in a similar category to Point Given, both being "easy to maintain."

Baffert said the same about Real Quiet, the unluckiest of his Triple Crown missers who was "in front before the wire and he was in front after the wire," but was nosed out on the wire by Victory Gallop.

But unlike Pharoah, Real Quiet had an archrival in Victory Gallop, and since they'd been "battling" through the Triple Crown, Baffert observed that "eventually they're going to turn the tables."

Baffert went on to compliment Victory Gallop for developing into a top-class horse, and even conceded that with a better trip, "maybe he could have won the Kentucky Derby."

His first Triple Crown near-misser, Silver Charm, had likewise been "duking it out every race" with Captain Bodgit and Free House. "By the time he got to the third race, it wears on you." Silver Charm was passed late in the Belmont by Touch Gold, and Baffert credited his rider, retired Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, for the masterstroke.

"Chris McCarron probably rode the most brilliant Belmont," the trainer offered.

For his last Triple Crown attempt with War Emblem, Baffert could see the proverbial handwriting on the wall.

"Racing was getting to him a little bit," he admitted, revealing that War Emblem was a "very light horse" who lost weight by the Belmont. Moreover, he was "just one-dimensional" as a front runner -- alluding to the fact that there was no Plan B after he broke poorly in the Belmont.

Having revisited his past three-year-old stars, Baffert reserved special praise for Pharoah. Here are a few examples:

"He's putting on weight, which is very rare...really looking good right now.

"I have a lot of confidence in the horse.

"I loved the way he went the other day (his half-mile move in :48 on Tuesday).

"Is he a once in a lifetime horse for me? I don't know.

"He just seems -- the way he moves, I've never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground the way he does...There's something in there that makes him so different from other horses.

"Hopefully, maybe this is the one."

Photo of Bob Baffert and American Pharoah courtesy of Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography.