For so long, something always went wrong. Starting in 1979 with the seemingly invincible Spectacular Bid, 13 horses won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but immortality eluded them all in the Belmont Stakes.
The endless string of almosts raised doubts we’d ever see another Triple Crown winner. Then American Pharoah came along three years ago and touched off the greatest Long Island lovefest since Secretariat’s otherworldly 1973 Belmont.
It finally happened, and the Triple Crown fraternity could welcome a 13th member Saturday at Belmont Park. Bob Baffert, the platinum-haired wizard who trained Pharoah, is back with undefeated Justify. He’s “quietly optimistic” he could raise racing’s most coveted trophy a second time.
Baffert fell short with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). It’s been said that one glorious romance can erase a series of heartbreaks, and that’s been the Pharoah effect on Baffert and racing fans.
“Before, we’d go there thinking it’s going to be so difficult,” he said. “I think this time is a little bit different. I just feel that with this horse, he’s so talented that something could go wrong in the race and he’d still win.”
Baffert, 65, has won five Derbys, seven Preaknesses and two Belmonts. Yet with all of his success, he admits he’s still edgy before every big race. He recently told WFAN’s Mike Francesa that he regrets not enjoying his first four Triple Crown tries as much as he could have.
“After I finally won it, I thought I’d like to come back and do it again,” he said. “It’s stressful, but it’s worth it. It’s still pressure, but this time I think I’ll enjoy it a little more. I look back and think ‘Why didn’t I go to more of those parties? Why was I so nervous about everything?’ ”
For the great ones, the hunger is always there, with no amount of success ever enough. They’re always focused on the next challenge, not reflecting on their achievements. It’s one reason why they’re great.
You don’t detect anxiety in the hypercompetitive Baffert. He’s funny and at ease thinking on his feet, sounding like a comedian riffing through thoughts before improvising a punchline. His speech pattern could be described as Senior Citizen Valley Guy, filled with “like,” “you know” and sentence fragments.
Unlike his friend D. Wayne Lukas, he’s not a workaholic who rises at 3:30 every day and beats everybody to the barn. Baffert is more like a CEO, delegating much of the hands-on work to longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes. One of Baffert’s rare gifts is the ability to see potential greatness in a young thoroughbred.
“We have a similar mindset,” Lukas said. “Both of us are real ly big on conformation. Bob is one of the few guys in the world who if he told me a horse is super nice, I would like him. I wouldn’t have to go look.”
Oddly, Baffert didn’t pick out American Pharoah or Justify, whom Ahmed Zayat and WinStar Farm, respectively, sent to him. He knew what to do with them when they arrived.
“It’s hard to compare the two,” Baffert said. “American Pharoah was so docile. Justify is a little more pushy. But that’s in the barn. On the track, he lets you do what you want to do with him.”
Pharoah’s mechanics were so smooth, he looked like a computer model of perfection in motion. The beauty, the power, the grace. As he was for Pharoah, jockey Martin Garcia is Justify’s workout rider.
“I never had a horse work like Pharoah, just the way he did everything,” Baffert said. “The other day, Martin told me Justify is starting to act like Pharoah. So I go, ‘Man, I hope so, because he’s really going to have to lay it down out there in the Belmont.’ ”