Trainer Bob Baffert’s road from brash upstart to elder statesman has him on the brink of US thoroughbred racing’s most fabled achievement, for the fourth time.
American Pharoah lines up for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday (Sunday AEST) aiming to become just the 12th horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont.
It’s a feat that hasn’t been accomplished in 37 years, and Baffert’s three failed bids mean he is well aware of the monumental difficulty of the task.
“It’s about the horse now,” Baffert said.
“I start feeling the pressure because I don’t want to let those fans down.
“Every year, people say ‘This is the one.’
“So hopefully, maybe, this is the one.
“I’ve seen a lot of great horses get to this point and lose.
“Right now, I’m just focused on getting him up there, putting a saddle on him, listening to the song ‘New York, New York.’
“And then he’s on his own.”
Three times Baffert has travelled to Belmont Park bearing the weight of those expectations, as the prospect of a Triple Crown, not completed since Affirmed in 1978, ignites the imaginations of even the most casual fans.
Baffert has been judging horses since his childhood, when his father, rancher Bill “The Chief” Baffert decided to add quarter horses to the family’s stock in Arizona.
Riding led to racing, racing to training and eventually Baffert, having conquered the quarter horse world, made his move to the more elite, more lucrative world of thoroughbred racing where he was a bracing, sometimes grating, contrast to the sport’s establishment.
Less than 12 months after setting up shop as a thoroughbred trainer in California, he won his first Breeders’ Cup race in 1992 with Thirty Slews in the Sprint although it took him until last year to claim his first Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern.
He has 11 wins in the three Triple Crown races, and three heartbreaking memories of Triple Crown disappointments when Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002 captured the first two jewels of the Triple Crown only to falter in the Belmont.
War Emblem, ridden by the same jockey that will be aboard American Pharoah, Victor Espinoza, stumbled out of the gate at Belmont Park and never had a chance.
Silver Charm succumbed to a late stretch run by Touch Gold, but perhaps the most painful loss was Real Quiet, finishing second by a nose to Victory Gallop.