Three times Bob Baffert had been a triple threat.
Three times the Hall of Fame trainer had a shot at the Triple Crown.
Three times he had come up short, by three-quarters of a length, or a nose or a stumble.
Then came Saturday at raucous, roiling Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes. The fourth time was Baffert's charm.
His American Pharoah cruised to victory, becoming the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown and crowning the 62-year-old Baffert's career.
In 1997, Baffert brought Silver Charm to the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown, but he was legged out in the final 50 yards by Touch Gold. In 1998, Victory Gallop nosed out Baffert's Real Quiet. In 2002, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate, ending Baffert's chances early for a Triple Crown.
Already inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2009 and the winner of 11 Triple Crown races before yesterday, Baffert's career was nothing short of stellar. But his 12th victory finally erased the disappointing memories.
"What a feeling. It's probably going to take a few days to sink in," Baffert said at a news conference in which he sat with his son Bode on his lap. "I had my kids here and they got to enjoy it. [Daughter] Savannah, she's here somewhere. I was holding her in my arms when she was 4 years old for Real Quiet. Luckily, she doesn't remember that."
Once American Pharoah broke on top, ripples of confidence flowed, though Baffert, given past letdowns, wasn't going to let himself believe it.
"I was talking to [wife] Jill the whole way around there and turning for home, I was preparing for somebody coming because I've been through this so many times. I was just hoping for once, and I could tell at the eighth pole that it was going to happen."
And so could the frenzied crowd, whose hopes for a Triple Crown winner fueled its thunderous roar as American Pharoah flowed down the stretch.
"All I did was just take in the crowd," Baffert said. "The crowd was just thundering and I was enjoying the crowd and noise and everything happening. Thirty-seven years we've waited for this, but you know what, this little horse, he deserves it. He's just a great horse."
From a ranching family in Nogales, Arizona, Baffert first made his name as a trainer in the quarter horse world of the American Southwest. In 1991, he decided to give thoroughbreds a try. In 1992, he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint with Thirty Slews, an 18-1 shot he had bought for $30,000. In 1996, he first sniffed glory in the Kentucky Derby with Cavonnier, who was just beaten by Grindstone. He won three straight Eclipse Awards starting in 1997.
Baffert's horses have won in excess of $222 million. And he pledged Saturday to give four different horseracing related charities $50,000 each.
"You can't train greatness," Baffert has said in the past. "You just watch."
Saturday, he maintained his modest demeanor while all around him were celebrating. As he tried to reach the winner's circle after the race, he ran a gantlet of fans who slapped him on the back and shouted his name.
Shortly after he and his family and owner Ahmed Zayat had broken through the phalanx, he said with remarkably contained excitement: "I just feel like I have a very special horse, and he's the one that won. It wasn't me, it was the horse."
The horse's owner, Ahmed Zayat, said: "It takes a special trainer. It takes a special team. And I want to salute him and thank him."