LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bob Baffert gave his wife Jill's family, visiting from Tennessee, a tour of Churchill Downs' Kentucky Derby Museum Saturday. The highlight was a 16-minute film of a colt's journey from birth to the big race, updated with American Pharoah's triumph May 2. The 360-degree, multiple-screen extravaganza gives you chills.
What Baffert called an "IV of happiness'' was only a taste of the rush he would feel last night. At a "Downs After Dark" theme party with thousands dressed in white, pure love enveloped the world's favorite horse. The Triple Crown winner was paraded before a crowd that went all out to match the outpouring of affection after the Belmont Stakes.
Pharoah, fashionably dressed in his white Triple Crown champion blanket, was led up and down the stretch before circling the mobbed paddock six times. A chant of "Pharoah! Pharoah! Pharoah!" went up, and a man yelled: "Horse of the century! You're the greatest athlete on the planet, my friend.''
Then the bay colt stopped and patiently posed amid the hoopla for video cameras and cell phones. One woman acted amazed, unaware that the Alpha male of his generation is also a perfect gentleman.
Baffert, owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat and jockey Victor Espinoza accepted their solid-gold Derby trophies before the presentation of the sterling silver Triple Crown trophy, which hadn't been claimed since Affirmed's sweep in 1978.
When Pharoah came down this stretch on Derby Day, not everyone was rooting for him. Espinoza whipped him 32 times during a duel with Firing Line before they edged away by a length. Pharoah followed his first real fight with two knockouts, dominating the Preakness by 7 lengths and the Belmont by 5 1/2. Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew, sees a direct connection.
"I think the strapping Espinoza gave him in the Derby woke him up and made him into a racehorse,'' Turner told Newsday. "Nobody's gotten close to him since.''
Baffert said that Monday, Justin Zayat, his father's 23-year-old racing manager, and Baffert's son Bode reflected on the glorious spring.
"Bode, we won the Triple Crown,'' Zayat said.
The 10-year-old replied, "It really wasn't that hard.''
Except for the Derby, it wasn't. The grind that began in March with the preps doesn't appear to have taken much out of Pharoah, who was his usual sharp, effortless self in a 1 1/4-mile gallop Saturday morning.
"He's lost about 15 pounds, but look how happy he looks,'' Ahmed Zayat said Saturday night. "We owe it to the fans that they see their champion.''
Pharoah will head back to California on Thursday, and Ahmed Zayat all but guaranteed that the Haskell on Aug. 2 at Monmouth Park will be next.
"Baffert owns the racetrack. He's won the Haskell seven times,'' he said in the paddock. "We live in New Jersey. The handwriting is on the wall.''
Assuming all goes well, the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland almost surely will be his last race. Whenever Pharoah leaves for Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky, Baffert's separation anxiety will be extreme.
"When I was young, I was a quarter horse trainer on little bush tracks in Arizona,'' Baffert said. "Being 'Triple Crown trainer' never entered my mind. He's taken me to a place in racing where I thought I'd never be.''
Pharoah also took the sport where it hadn't been for 37 years.
"The guys at ESPN said [the Belmont] caught America's attention and made a lot of people feel really good about themselves for a while,'' Baffert said. "With everything bad that's going on in the world, for a few minutes they got to see something spectacular.''