The faces of horse racing

Bob Baffert said he feels more pressure now than he did before American Pharoah won the Triple Crown. Baffert couldn't have anticipated this, but he has become the face of the sport, its ambassador to popular culture, and American Pharoah has become its cover boy.

Horse racing is fortunate to once again have a living, breathing embodiment of the famed series, and the sport is fortunate Baffert trains him. Quite simply, Baffert gets it. Although he would never say so, it's quite possible he and American Pharoah saved the Triple Crown: They saved it from revision, they saved it from depreciation, and most of all, they saved the sport's most alluring attraction from becoming an exercise in anticlimax.

Just think back on the status of the Triple Crown a month ago. When American Pharoah stepped off a van in New York, he arrived amid considerable ballyhoo as the 14th and latest in a long procession of Triple Crown possibilities to take up residence at Belmont Park. But the sport had seen all this before -- had seen it often -- and for 37 years, the details varied, but the narrative always ended in frustration.

Baffert had already been here, in this same position, three times. Well-versed in the parlous nature of the sport and especially this series, he prepared himself for possible disappointment. Ten other trainers had also been here, with a chance at a Triple Crown sweep, but nobody had the answer or the horse. Defeat was egalitarian.

Think back on the status of the Triple Crown after California Chrome finished fourth (in a dead heat) in last year's Belmont Stakes. His co-owner, Steve Coburn, embittered by the loss and the colt's foiled attempt to sweep the series, predicted he wouldn't see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime.

Although not as blustering or irrational as Coburn, many expressed similar views, often suggesting the time had come for a revision, particularly an adjustment of the schedule to accommodate the modern (i.e. weak) racehorse. Tom Chuckas, who was president of the Maryland Jockey Club at the time (he resigned in November), even announced plans to initiate talks about a change in the spacing of the Triple Crown races.

Then American Pharoah spurted clear in the Belmont Park stretch to win by more than five lengths and become the 12th Triple Crown winner. When he returned to California, he warranted a police escort from the Ontario airport to Santa Anita. Even better, actress Julia Roberts welcomed him home. What PR American Pharoah couldn't handle, Baffert did, including throwing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game. Baffert expected the tumult and hubbub to die down after a week or so, but it has been a wave that only seems to keep building.

So he feels even more pressure. He is no longer one of 11 trainers who went to New York with a chance for a sweep but missed. Baffert closed the deal and got it done when many said it wouldn't be done again. If he feels the pressure more intensely, it's because he knows his role has changed. He has become more than a trainer. He has become the custodian of the 12th Triple Crown winner and the face of the sport.

"I want him to stay undefeated this year," Baffert said of American Pharoah. "I owe it to the horse."

American Pharoah will probably return to competition around the first of August, at either Saratoga or Monmouth Park.

This would have been difficult to imagine 23 years ago, when Baffert first stepped onto the national stage, with pressed jeans, sunglasses and a breezy manner, at Gulfstream Park for the Breeders' Cup with a sprinter named Thirty Slews. "Who's that guy?" Veterans of the backside wondered, nodding in the direction of the white-haired fellow who seemed to be having altogether too much fun. They stopped wondering when Thirty Slews won the Breeders' Cup Sprint by a neck at 18-1.

It probably would have been unsettling, more than anything, to imagine Baffert as the face of the sport in 2002, after he had won two Eclipse Awards as the sport's outstanding trainer and three Kentucky Derbies (he narrowly missed a fourth). By then, as his longtime friend and client Mike Pegram put it, Baffert not only thought he could train the horses but also knew how to run the racetrack. As Baffert himself once said of that time of his life, when a person gets "a lot of ink" and press attention -- when, in other words, he becomes something of a celebrity -- and is surrounded by fans and toadies eager to please, he starts "believing his own crap." For a short time, Baffert believed.

If you had asked Baffert back then why he was so successful, his answer probably would have included a few first-person pronouns. Not so today. Much has happened, some of it personal -- wife Jill, their son Bode, a heart attack -- to bring everything back into focus. Maybe he just remembered what's important to him.

Today, when Baffert speaks about the sport, his voice rings with passion. His love for the game and its competitors is unmistakeable. If you asked him why he is such a successful trainer, he would talk about fast horses and supportive owners, not himself.

"The cowboy put me in the winner's circle," Baffert said recently, in reference to Coburn's fatuous prediction and the recent Belmont. Baffert declined to take any credit for American Pharoah's accomplishments and instead argued the colt is so talented and poised that Bode, 11, could train him.

"He's so smart, he's like Mr. Ed," Baffert said, comparing American Pharoah to the loquacious horse of TV fame. "I keep waiting for him to say something."

Baffert's modesty notwithstanding, his work with American Pharoah was some of his best. Amazing even.

In November, Baffert had to scratch the colt out of the Breeders' Cup juvenile because of an injury. Seven months later, American Pharoah became the 12th Triple Crown winner, and his trainer the face of racing.

The sport is fortunate on both counts.