Baffert reflects on American Pharoah experience
"We're glad to be a part of history," the Hall of Fame trainer said by phone from his Southern California base.
Baffert, along with the Zayat family, will be at Belmont Park on Thursday for a live Q&A, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. (ET) in the horsemen's lounge on the second floor of the grandstand, free with paid admission.
With Baffert not having an entrant in the 2016 Belmont Stakes, things are significantly quieter at Barn 1, where he always stables his horses when they run at Belmont Park.
"It is a different feeling this year. I'm thinking back on last year, about all of the excitement and what Pharoah brought," he said. "Coming into the Belmont, we thought everything was going well, but you never know until the gate comes open."
No one understands that better than Baffert, who won the 2001 Belmont with Point Given but missed capturing Triple Crown glory three times when Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) - all favored to win - fell short in the Belmont.
"The main concern was to just get him out of the gate,” Baffert said. “We wanted that clean break.
“When you're waiting and waiting, you're thinking about War Emblem (who stumbled badly at the break and lost all chance of winning). You're thinking about all of that. You're thinking about all of those horses (who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but failed in the Belmont), like Big Brown. There was no way Big Brown could lose, but things can go wrong.”
For American Pharoah, who would go on to complete the first "Grand Slam" with a smashing victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic in his final race in November, and owner/breeder Zayat Stables, Baffert and Espinoza, everything went right.
"We were all pretty relaxed (the week leading up to the Belmont) because it was all going so well,” the conditioner explained. “I knew going in there if he shipped good...and then the first time I saw him (after arriving from California), he was just incredible. The first day he galloped over that track at Belmont, he just went over it so nice. He just kept his cool. Then the way he went to the paddock, he was so cool and did everything else so nice.”
On race day, once Baffert tightened the girth on American Pharoah and gave Espinoza a leg up, confidence soared.
"When Victor got on his back, he could feel the power,” Baffert said. “Once he felt that power, Victor looked at me like, 'Wow. I think he's really gonna be good today.' The minute he got on him, he could tell. He just felt this incredible power underneath him. After that, Victor just smiled and waved at people."
Even so, Baffert's heart was in his mouth when the gate sprung open.
"Pharoah sort of stepped back, and that was the worst break he'd ever had. He was stepping back right when the gate opened, but Victor gathered him up and got him going. That was the only moment that I was worried," Baffert said. "Once he got him out of the gate and got him rolling, I thought, 'This is really going to be enjoyable to watch.'"
Photo courtesy of Adam Coglianese Photography