Knowing of Ahmed Zayat's run of near-misses going into this year's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert wanted to win the Louisville classic with American Pharoah for the owner.
With that obstacle cleared, Baffert then wanted to see if his team could help turn American Pharoah around in two weeks to compete in the Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I). The son of Pioneerof the Nile soared over that hurdle.
Now the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) remains as the final Triple Crown test with American Pharoah in position to become the first horse to sweep the three races since 1978. Baffert wants a comfortable horse going into the 1 1/2-mile classic but, other than daily efforts to keep the dual classic winner happy, the trainer largely hopes to stay out of his way.
With American Pharoah earning champion 2-year-old male honors last season and rolling through his 2015 races, Baffert sees no reason for tweaking at this point.
"I wanted to win the Derby for the Zayat family. The second race was just to see if he could come back in two weeks," Baffert said during a May 28 National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference. "We thought he could do it but you don't know until they do it."
"This next race isn't about me, the jockey, or the Zayats; it's about the horse; to see if he can do it."
Baffert, who has been in this position three times before, just missing with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998 before coming up short with War Emblem in 2002, realizes the enormity of the test American Pharoah is about to face. As Baffert sees it, there's no magic equipment change, approach in strategy, workout pattern, or travel schedule that will lift his horse.
But this horse, already a champion and a two-time classic winner, most assuredly has his own considerable talents. And of those talents, the quality that American Pharoah brings to the table—the quality Baffert believes could help him sweep the Triple Crown—is the colt's smooth stride.
In a hard-fought Derby win, that smooth stride wasn't noticeable but it returned in all its visual glory in the Preakness, where American Pharoah was asked early to seize the lead through a quarter-mile in :22.90 but then seemed to glide through the rest of the race, registering a third fraction of :24.93 and fourth quarter-mile of :26.32, while easily maintaining his advantage.
Through the stretch he displayed that stride, somehow combining grace and power, while increasing his advantage under a hand ride from jockey Victor Espinoza. That lightness on his feet could help him as he turns around for a third classic in five weeks, a fourth grade I race in eight weeks.
"We just want to have him at his best," Baffert said. "We want him to bring his 'A' game."
That is part of the reason Baffert has kept American Pharoah at Churchill Downs, where he successfully prepared for the Derby and the Preakness. As Baffert sees it, that comfort level outweighs any advantage to arriving early and gaining added familiarity with Belmont Park.
If American Pharoah comes up short in his Triple Crown bid, Baffert wants to make sure it wasn't because the horse didn't have as much chance—as the terms of the race schedule allows—to recover, regroup, and enter in good spirits. With that goal in mind, Baffert has kept American Pharoah at Churchill.
That smooth stride is what Baffert hopes to see; American Pharoah's ace in the hole.
"The thing about Pharoah... the way he moves—I've never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does. I've had some really good horses but I've never had a horse that moves like that," Baffert said. "There's something in there that makes him so different than the other horses. That's what we have in our favor."
There are hurdles ahead: a final workout at Churchill Sunday or Monday, the van trip, settling in, and then the all-important start of the race. But that amazing stride is giving Baffert hope that this year could be different for him, and different for the fans who long to see the accomplishment.
If he doesn't like the distance, that's not something Baffert has any control over. As Baffert sees it, if he doesn't like the surface, getting there a day sooner isn't going to magically make him like it on race day. He figues the best way of seeing that special stride is to send out a happy horse in his comfort zone.
"Is he that once-in-a-lifetime horse for me? I don't know. I never thought I'd be going through this again. To be doing it a fourth time, I'm really blessed," Baffert said. "That's why it's all about him now; it's the horse."
With a very busy stable, and young horses coming in, and travel, Baffert said he doesn't constantly think about the Triple Crown, but then, seemingly realizing he wasn't telling the entire story, acknowledged that there is still some time to think about the approaching race and the possibility for history.
"I'm like everybody else watching; I'm part trainer but part fan," Baffert said. "I'm getting excited just thinking about it and seeing what he can do."