LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is a talker. His therapy for nervousness is chatter. One liners, idle banter – it helps keep the thoroughbred trainer calm in stressful times.
And there is no more stressful time in his line of work than the minutes leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Especially when you're saddling the two betting favorites and holding what many have said is the strongest Derby hand since 1948. Baffert was acutely aware that it was his race to lose.
The three-time Derby-winning trainer stood in the Churchill Downs paddock before the 141st run for the roses and gabbed. His favorite, American Pharoah, and second choice Dortmund had gone to the track for the post parade. As the strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" began, Bob started talking.
"I hear this song and think, 'It's almost over. My job is done,' " Baffert said. He asked his 10-year-old son, Bode, if he was ready (the answer was yes). He explained that American Pharoah had become agitated on the walk over from the barn area because "he doesn't like noise," and a record crowd of 170,513 was making a lot of it. He accurately presaged a challenge from Firing Line, ridden by 52-year-old Gary Stevens.
"That's a good horse," Baffert said. "Gary's got his game face on."
He shook hands with his assistant, Jimmy Barnes.
"They're perfect," Barnes said.
Someone asked Baffert if he was nervous.
"I'm always nervous," he said. "The day I don't get nervous, check my pulse. I'll be dead."
Baffert kept on talking until just about the instant the starting gate opened.
[Slideshow: Celebrities at the Derby]
Then he didn't say another word for the next 2 minutes and 3 seconds. By the time he spoke again, he'd captured Derby No. 4 – American Pharoah beating Firing Line to the wire by a length.
Baffert could have any seat in the house, but wanted none of them. The 62-year-old did not watch the race in a box looking out at the track. He watched it on the video board in the paddock, on the other side of the Twin Spires from where an alley fight of a Derby was waged.
When the race began, Baffert folded his arms tightly across his chest. As jockey Victor Espinoza aggressively angled American Pharoah out of the No. 18 post and to the outside of front-running Dortmund and Firing Line, the trainer did not move. As those three horses raced unchallenged by any of their 15 pursuers, he did not say a word.
As his star colt finally pulled away from stubbornly game Firing Line in the final sixteenth of a mile, Baffert nodded his head three times. As American Pharoah crossed the wire, Baffert pumped a fist and yelled, “Yeah!” Then he was buried in hugs by his two older sons, Forest and Canyon, kissed his crying wife, Jill, and triumphantly swept Bode off his feet.
After winning the roses three times between 1997-2002, it was a 13-year wait to move into a tie for second for most Derby victories among trainers. His appreciation for the achievement has grown since the days when it almost came too easily.
"You get to a point in your life that maybe it's not going to happen for me [again]," Baffert said. "Then they sent me this horse and I'm like, 'Wow, don't mess it up, Bob.' "
Ahmed Zayat is the man who sent American Pharoah to Baffert. Zayat has become one of the leading owners in the sport, but he hadn't been able to win the big one. Saturday, after finally taking the Derby, Zayat strode toward the winner's circle in an exultant daze.
"Who was second?" he asked me.
In previous years Zayat had been painfully aware who was second. It was he, three times between 2009-12. Not this time.
But American Pharoah had to work for it like never before. A colt who had glided to four straight victories had to lay his belly down, in racing parlance, to win this one.
Espinoza vigorously tattooed Pharoah's right hip about 30 times with his whip, urging him past Dortmund and Firing Line in a withering stretch duel. At one point in deep stretch, Pharoah and Firing Line veered toward each other and Stevens almost stood up in the saddle, conceding the space and the race.
"I start getting really, really nervous," Zayat said. "And my wife [Joanne] starts crying. Like, literally, in seconds that emotion went from somebody who is crying out of fear that they're going to take it again from us, to actually you have done it. Tears of joy. It was like a euphoria of emotions."
[Slideshow: American Pharoah wins 141st Kentucky Derby]
Euphoria met nausea in the Zayat box. Ahmed's 23-year-old son, Justin, the racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables, actually threw up after the race.
Nobody was sick anymore by the time the entourage reached the winner's circle. Espinoza celebrated his third Derby win (and second in a row) by spraying champagne on everyone. Ahmed Zayat responded by opening his mouth to gulp down the bubbly, completely unconcerned that his expensive pinstripe suit was being splattered.
This was the result a lot of people anticipated – American Pharoah went off as the 5-2 favorite after a week of rhapsodic descriptions of his running style. In winning the race, Pharoah lived up to his billing – but not up to the superhorse hype.
The one-length margin of victory was the smallest in the Derby in a decade. The time (2:03.02) was slower than 12 of the last 15 winners – and slower than 11 of the last 12 Derbys run on a fast track. For a horse that had a great trip, never encountering any traffic problems, the expectation was that American Pharoah may run off with it at the top of the stretch.
Didn't happen. Espinoza had to ride his horse far harder than he had in his previous starts – starting in on him on the far turn and never stopping until the final strides.
"I started riding a little bit," Espinoza said. "And the other horse, he was kind of tough, I tell you."
Having won five straight races, the American Pharoah Triple Crown talk will start by sunrise Sunday. But the odds remain stacked heavily against the colt.
A lot of contenders probably will skip the Preakness. That's a race Baffert has won five times, including all three times with his previous Derby winners. The hard part of the equation, as always, figures to be the Belmont.
Other contenders will be more rested, and the toll of this race may be felt acutely by then. This was no stroll beneath the spires.
But on this sun-splashed first Saturday in May, a Kentucky Derby victory is all that mattered. Baffert and Zayat had teamed up to finish second twice before in this most coveted race – including once with Pioneerof The Nile, American Pharoah's sire.
"We know what it is," Baffert said, "to just get completely punched in the face."
Fate kissed Bob Baffert on the lips this time. He had the right horse, got the right ride, won the roses. It had been awhile, which only made the return to the winner's circle that much sweeter.