For much more than a decade, the 2001 Kentucky Derby (G1) haunted Bob Baffert.
He was certain that in Point Given he had a horse with enough talent and stamina to win not only the Run for the Roses but the other two legs of the Triple Crown as well.
Point Given indeed took the Preakness Stakes (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1) in decisive fashion, but in the Kentucky Derby he finished fifth. It was a baffling effort that Baffert still cannot explain and has fueled countless thoughts of "what if" in the mind of the Hall of Fame trainer.
"I was always upset with myself because of Point Given losing in the Kentucky Derby," Baffert said. "He was the one that got away. He should have won the Triple Crown."
Then Zayat Stables' American Pharoah came into Baffert's life, and after the Pioneerof the Nile colt captured the 2015 Kentucky Derby, the painful memories of 2001 began to slowly fade into the background.
In their place was a euphoric victory at Churchill Downs that ignited Baffert's first Triple Crown bid in 13 years and filled him with as much pride and excitement as he has ever experienced during a lifetime in the business.
"When 'Pharoah' won the Kentucky Derby, I felt like God had given me another chance," he said. "My parents were gone and I was so emotional at that time. I thought I was getting some help from above. I thought this could be the horse to do it. This could be a Triple Crown winner."
After Baffert won two-thirds of the Triple Crown on four occasions—and felt the sting of Triple Crown aspirations fade away in the Belmont Stakes in three of them—it was American Pharoah who wrote an electrifying and unforgettable chapter in Baffert's life by becoming the long-awaited first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.
"Silver Charm was always my favorite horse. He was my first Kentucky Derby winner (in 1997) and I thought no one else could steal my heart away, but 'Pharoah' did," said the 67-year-old Baffert, now a two-time Triple Crown winner. "He was just so special. Everything about him was superior."
Bred by owner Ahmed Zayat, American Pharoah was so impressive as a juvenile that he was named the champion 2-year-old male despite missing the Breeders' Cup with a bruised foot.
Baffert was unable to get American Pharoah to the races at 3 until March 14 but a string of brilliant works and wins in the Rebel Stakes (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) by a combined 14 1/4 lengths stoked the trainer's confidence.
"I breezed him before the Rebel and he breezed like no other horse I ever had. It was an incredible work from the gate," he said. "So when he won the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby like he did, we knew he was something really special."
Baffert's powerful hand for the 141st Kentucky Derby also included Dortmund , Kaleem Shah's Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner who did not travel well from California to Kentucky.
"Dortmund got light on the ship to Kentucky," Baffert recalled.
Together, American Pharoah and Dortmund gave Baffert the two betting choices in the Run for the Roses with the Zayat runner favored at 5-2.
Dortmund landed post 7 and American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza had post 15. Since both 3-year-olds had keen early speed, the pre-race strategy was for Dortmund, with a post closer to the rail, to take the early lead and American Pharoah to track outside of him.
The 1 1/4-mile classic unfolded that way as Dortmund led for the opening mile with Arnold Zetcher's Firing Line chasing him and American Pharoah right behind in third.
But as the field approached the quarter pole, Baffert's emotions began to sink.
"When he got to the 2 1/2-furlong pole, he wasn't running. I could tell by Victor's body language that he was trying to get him going and he wasn't moving up. I said to myself, 'I can't believe this. This horse is going to get beat. He's empty,'" Baffert said.
Then in the next instant, American Pharoah's brilliance came into play. Sweeping five paths wide, he grabbed a narrow lead leaving the quarter pole and edged away to prevail by a length with Firing Line second and Dortmund two lengths back in third.
"It was such a thrill," Baffert said about the fourth of his five Kentucky Derby wins. "'Pharaoh' brought so much joy to everyone through his races. It was exciting for me that all (four) of my sons were there to experience it. The Zayats had been second in the Derby three times and for what they put into the game they were deserving to win that race."
American Pharoah was retired with a record of nine wins in 11 starts after taking the 2015 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1).
"Now when I visit 'Pharaoh' at (Ashford Stud) it still makes me emotional," Baffert said. "All of the memories come back. All of those great memories."
Including the win that started it all in the 2015 Kentucky Derby.
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