Baffert's long journey finally nets a Triple Crown

ELMONT, N.Y. -- The crescendo began as he walked from the barns to the tunnel.

"Go, Bob," they yelled, first just a few, and then more and more taking on the cheer from their spots along the fences, cellphones snapping the moment.

It built more through the tunnel, following Bob Baffert as he wound his way up the stairs and through what became a phalanx of humanity in the box seat area, the cheers by then turning into almost a chant.

And then, just as American Pharoah's trainer was entering his seating area, Frank Sinatra neared his own crescendo of "New York, New York."

"I'm king of the hill," Sinatra sang. "Top of the heap."

Minutes later, American Pharoah turned Sinatra's lyrics into prophecy when he crossed the finish line 5½ lengths ahead of second-place finisher Frosted to become the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown.

The horse now joins a select fraternity of champions, his name forever linked with the game's superhorses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Citation.

And his trainer, who was 0-for-3 since making his first attempt at the sport's elusive prize 18 years ago, is now the king of the sport of kings, at the top of the heap.

Baffert and his horse achieved what had become one of sport's most elusive accomplishments, delivering not only another chapter of history to the record books but a much-needed shot of adrenaline to their sport.

"Well, I mean, I really wanted to see it happen, but to me I really don't, I don't look at it as me," Baffert said. "I think the Triple Crown is about the horse."

Nearly stoic, with only the hint of a smirk betraying his mood as he watched the race, Baffert punched the air with his fist as the crowd exploded around him and then hugged his wife, Jill, and enveloped his 10-year-old son, Bode.

A good hour later, Baffert sat behind a table at a news conference, Bode perched on his lap -- "If Steph Curry can get away with it, so can I," Baffert quipped -- and tried to explain what had just happened.

He couldn't. How could he? Three times he sat at the same place and tried to describe what it was like to be so close to the impossible, but miss.

Turns out, putting history into words was even more difficult. Baffert's California cool was still there, the laid-back, almost surfer-dude way of talking, but the words that came out never felt quite adequate.

"Turning for home, I was prepared for somebody coming because I've gone through this so many times and I was just hoping for once ... I could just tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen," he said.

"The crowd was just thundering, and I was just enjoying the call and the crowd, the noise, and everything happening."

Baffert didn't need a Triple Crown to prove anything. With four Kentucky Derby wins, six more in the Preakness and now two in the Belmont, he long ago cemented himself as one of the best at his job.

But the man who grew up in Nogales, Arizona, and started his career training quarter horses can not only appreciate the magnitude of the history of the Triple Crown, but the improbability of his own history, too.

"This is not supposed to happen," he said, shaking his head at the idea of it all.

He came into the sport like a storm, breezing to his first Derby title in only his second try. That year, 1997, he would take Silver Charm to the brink of the Triple Crown. Baffert matched the feat again a year later, with Real Quiet, and got to the brink a third time in 2002 with War Emblem.

Each horse lost in different, but equally excruciating ways: Silver Charm, chased down by Touch Gold; Real Quiet, beaten by a Victory Gallop head bob; and War Emblem, out as soon as the race began, stumbling out of the gate and done before the race even really started.

The near misses can wear on a man and certainly have worn on the sport, more people coming to this point of the calendar convinced a Triple Crown can't happen rather than imagining how it could.

Even kids.

Bode Baffert was a pint-sized picture of pessimism hours before the race, explaining to his dad the inverse ratio of hope that gripped him as the race neared.

"The closer it gets, the less chance we think we have, don't we?" Baffert asked his boy, who nodded.

Baffert, somehow, seemed the most relaxed of anyone. Realism built on the backbone of humility will do that to a man, replacing butterflies with rocks and turning anticipation into something closer to dread. And Baffert has tasted a lot of reality, humbled not just by the sport but also by life.

Since his first Derby win, he has been divorced and remarried; since his latest Triple Crown try, he's suffered a heart attack. "I realized on the way over here, I forgot my heart attack medication," he joked after winning.

So he's learned instead of worrying about history to enjoy the moment.

As the horses headed to the paddock 40 minutes before the race, he hung out with his family and joked with reporters that horses could use an equine union.

"Can you imagine NFL guys putting up with this?" he joked.

The only time Baffert lost his cool was when some representatives from Monster energy drink, who signed a sponsorship deal with American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, tried to make a move to the horse for photo ops and product placement. Baffert forcefully shooed them away, clearly not interested in anything upsetting his horse.

And then he started his walk, holding Bode's hand, his other kids linked arm in arm behind him. He casually walked around the paddock as American Pharoah was led in, chatting with jockey Victor Espinoza for a time while a crowd stood on the opposite side of the paddock, its eyes trained on him and his horse.

Finally, after the jockeys headed for the track, Baffert followed, turning at the last minute out of the tunnel and up to his seat.

The crowd, already in full throat as the horses were loading into the gate, was near deafening by the time Espinoza brought American Pharoah home.

By then, Jill Baffert, who watched the entire race with her hands pressed to her lips, was in tears. Within minutes, the entire Baffert family was being congratulated by everyone within an arm's length.

"I can't believe this has happened," Baffert said. "I wanted to feel it in those other races, but I believe in fate. Something kept me from winning those other races. For me to win today, everything was so good, everything so positive all the way through."

And then, after the last questions were finally exhausted and his official duties ended, Baffert stood up from his spot on the dais and turned around to a television screen behind him.

The replay of the race had been playing on a loop, and Baffert stood and watched it.

He looked almost exactly as he did in the club seats, arms folded across his chest, standing perfectly still.

Except this time he was smiling -- a broad grin reserved only for the man who is now the king of the hill, the top of the heap.