Unprecedented year comes to joyous close for American Pharoah, team

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The mind goes in strange directions when nerves collide with history to take a man on a memory train ride that includes stops at the ridiculous and inane.

So it was for Bob Baffert as he stood alone in a crowd in the paddock of Keeneland Racetrack. Most of the 50,155 had already turned their eyes to his horse -- American Pharoah, winner of the first Triple Crown in 37 years -- about to enter the starting gate, but plenty were watching him too, with camera crews and reporters watching the trainer watch his horse.

The last five minutes to post seemed to stretch on forever, and Baffert, who had pulled back a few steps to create a small bubble of breathing room amid the crowd, filled the time reminiscing.

He talked about his first Breeders' Cup experience, back in 1991, when money was an object. The shirt he wore that day was so cheap and thick he found himself dealing with a major case of chafed and bleeding nipples, and he was more concerned with covering up the embarrassment than waxing eloquent as reporters sought comment after his horse, Soviet Sojourn, won the Junior Miss Stakes.

That story prompted another trip down his personal timeline to 1996 and another pit stop, this one with a horse named Zipper's Up. All day folks yelled, 'Hey, Bob, zipper's down!' He brushed off what he figured was just a lazy play on words, until a lady pulled him aside and said, 'Bob, your fly is down.'

As Baffert finished that punchline, American Pharoah loaded into the gate for the final race of his career.

No more jokes. No more stories.

The past faded away and gave way to the glorious present as Baffert crossed his arms and stared ahead. Instead of spinning yarns, he spoke only in short bursts: urging jockey Victor Espinoza with a, "Come on, Victor, let him run," fretting about the challenging 6 horse, Effinex, asking aloud of jockey Mike Smith, "What are you doing to me, Mike?" and worrying about Tonalist, "the one, the one."

Finally American Pharoah turned for home.

"Come on, boy,'' Baffert said. "Come on, Victor."

Then the space between American Pharoah and Effinex grew, stretching to six-and-a-half lengths by the time the great horse crossed the wire to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, the last race of his majestic career.

Baffert shook his head, placed his hand on the shoulder of his wife, Jill, and said simply, "What a horse."

What a horse, indeed.

What else is there be to say about American Pharoah? The historians, the folks who track Beyer's Speeds and the like, will argue where he ranks alongside the greatest horses.

It doesn't matter. American Pharoah's greatness lies not just in what he did but also in when he did it. He came along when interest in horse racing had waned, with the nearly four-decade Triple Crown drought dimming the casual fan's hope of seeing the seemingly impossible.

When he crossed the finish at the Belmont Stakes, the prolonged roar from the crowd, a goosebump-raising moment that video can't do justice, was as much a 37-year catharsis as it was a celebration of the moment.

He followed that with a victory lap of a win at the Haskell Invitational. A loss at the Travers Stakes in Saratoga, while devastating in the moment, actually served as the perfect set-up for this Breeders' Cup.

When in sports does everyone arrive at an event and root for the same team? That's what happened Saturday at Keeneland. Sure, some bettors might be disappointed that they failed to cash their tickets, but no one came here hoping to see American Pharoah lose. They came, simply, in hope of seeing history, in hope of enjoying what so rarely happens anymore: the magical moment.

Too often our heroes spoil things, disappoint us with their human frailties, stretch their careers just long enough that they become a fade-to-black rather than an exit-to-glory, with the grand finale going off more like a dud firecracker than a display of dazzling fireworks.

American Pharoah did none of those things.

He left his barn at 4:51 p.m. to begin the long walk to the track, with assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes cautioning a camera crew, "He's a fast walker. Be prepared for us to mow you over.'' By 5 p.m., American Pharoah was at barn 34, the holding barn, with 16 Kentucky National Guardsmen forming two lines on the path outside.

At 5:22 p.m., he exited as the seventh in the field of eight horses to make his way to the paddock. En route, a phalanx of waiters, waitresses and race volunteers lined the walkway and eventually gave way to the paying customers hanging over the white fences that lined the path. Some started to cheer, and others immediately shushed them, worrying they'd spook the horse. Their fears were misplaced.

Pharoah doesn't scare easily. He casually and calmly took in the mayhem in the paddock, a crush of humanity that included the horse's human posse that now counts Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora among its members.

"I swear, he stopped and looked at me and my family,'' owner Ahmed Zayat said later. "It was like he was saying, 'I'm going to get it done.'''

Zayat and Baffert have said all week that they wanted this win not for themselves but for the horse. He has spent the past six months crisscrossing the country and racking up more frequent-flier miles than the most popular businessman, yet he has never been moody or temperamental. They speak about American Pharoah's kindness as much as they do his talent.

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who felt compelled to crash the postrace press conference to congratulate Baffert, said the horse's comportment is nothing extraordinary, but when he moves, it is "poetry in motion."

"He's right there with Secretariat and Spectacular Bid,'' Lukas said. "And that's pretty good company.''

Both those horses won their final races. That's what Zayat and Baffert wanted for American Pharoah -- the sizzle finish, not the fizzle.

"We owe American Pharoah everything," Zayat said. "He owes us nothing."

Wanting the best for the horse -- more than worries about the race itself -- is what ignited the nervous energy in Baffert before the race.

"I've never been so damned emotional about running a horse,'' he said to his wife. To which Jill Baffert replied forcefully, "Stop crying. Stop.''

Jill failed to take her own advice minutes later, when she covered her mouth as her husband kissed her after American Pharoah ended his career with yet another blanket of flowers and yet another riotous celebration in the winner's circle.

Everyone cried. Zayat openly sobbed so much he had to remove his glasses to wipe tears away as he enveloped Baffert in a bear hug. The two families, owners and trainers, collapsed into a mosh pit of joy while everyone around them high-fived and snapped pictures.

In the middle of the mob, Baffert yelled to anyone and everyone who could hear him: "What do I do now?''

Enjoy the moment. The memory train doesn't stop here too often.