BALTIMORE - He's a character who free associates while thinking out loud, providing unique insights as they pop into his head. Hall of Famer Bob Baffert can be very funny, but he's always been dead serious about winning at the elite level.
He's trained many great horses, including Hall of Famers Silverbulletday and Point Given. American Pharoah may turn out to be the best of them all, and if he can stay 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont Stakes on June 6, he'll become an immortal. Not since Affirmed in 1978 has a horse swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and before him only 10 others did.
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Baffert, a record crowd of 131,680 and a worldwide television audience saw the Pharoah rule the Preakness Saturday by seven widening lengths. All week there was a sense of anticipation that he was going to accomplish something special, and he did.
"Everybody talks about the greatness and he's starting to show it," Baffert said. "To me, they have to prove it. Today, the way he did it, it was poetry in motion."
Baffert's laid-back persona and offbeat sense of humor mask an urge to dominate, which he's done in the most prestigious races for almost 20 years. He's won 10 Triple Crown events -- three Derbys, six Preaknesses and a Belmont -- yet three times he's been denied a sweep, the ultimate achievement for an American horseman. Twice he looked as if he had it, but in 1997 Touch Gold nailed Silver Charm in the final 50 yards, and in 1998 Real Quiet was nosed out by Victory Gallop.
He said he wants to savor the Preakness and not get ahead of himself. "I really don't think about the Belmont yet," Baffert said. "But this is the only horse I've ever had that I haven't had to try to talk people into knowing how good he is. I sort of keep it low key because I didn't want to jinx myself. But he's doing all the talking."
American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, considers Baffert the most gifted trainer in the country. "Bob's team, they are first class, absolutely the best," he said. For a long time, Baffert has known how to win the big ones, and for a record fourth time, he has the chance at the biggest one.
"It's been an unbelievable ride," Zayat said, "and as a fan, as a horse lover, I'm just thrilled we have a shot at history."
Starting with the great Spectacular Bid in 1979, 12 other thoroughbreds have gotten to this point but no farther. Having been burned three times in the grand finale, Baffert is understandably wary of getting his hopes up too high. That isn't keeping him from riding the rush.
"It's fun watching this because it was fun watching it last year with Art Sherman and California Chrome," Baffert said. "It's just exciting. As a fan and a trainer, I really enjoy watching what he does. A horse like this is so good for racing."