Back at the Derby, Baffert Reminisces About American Pharoah

American Pharoah and Bob Baffert in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Louisville, Ky. – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert can be forgiven for wanting to live in the past even as he prepares talented Mor Spirit for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands on May 7.

He posed for photos on the morning of May 2 beside a new green placard attached to Barn 33 at Churchill Downs that read in gold lettering, “American Pharoah, 2015 Triple Crown winner.” He wore a custom-made windbreaker that bore Pharoah’s name beneath the American flag.

Baffert fielded questions about Mor Spirit, the runner-up to Exaggerator on a muddy track in the Santa Anita Derby who may be capable of much more if the Churchill Downs surface comes up dry and fast. But he spent most of his time recalling American Pharoah and what might well have been a once-in-a-lifetime ride.

“We all have American Pharoah hangover,” he said before leaving with his wife, Jill, and other family members to visit the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first in 37 years at nearby Ashford Stud. They also planned to spend time with retired Silver Charm at Old Friends and some of his other former stars.

No one is feeling that hangover more than Baffert, 63. The more he was asked about Mor Spirit, the more he thought back to Pharoah. He remembered how the colt became a bit unglued during the walkover for the Derby and how gamely he dug in against Firing Line after Baffert told Jill that he was “empty” for the stretch run.

Mor Spirit (left) wins the Los Alamitos Futurity in December. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Baffert recalled an epic journey that took Pharoah from prep races in Arkansas to Louisville for the Derby to Baltimore for the Preakness to New York for the Belmont Stakes to Oceanport, N.J., for the Haskell Invitational to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the Travers and, finally, to Lexington, Ky., for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“I don’t think we’ll see another one that tough,” Baffert said of his road warrior.

Even in his lone defeat last year, Pharoah packed a punch. Baffert recalled how bravely his champion fought as he tried to stave off Keen Ice while running on empty in the Travers. With the benefit of hindsight, the famed “Mid-Summer Derby” was one start too many on a crowded schedule intended to showcase him as much as possible.

Pharoah was as tough as they come on the racetrack, yet oh so gentle around the barn. The trainer recalled how well the eventual unanimous Horse of the Year played to a crowd, even as that following swelled with every start.

“He loved human contact,” Baffert said.

Pharoah, without the benefit of a prep race for the Classic, rebounded to dominate the final start of his illustrious career for nerveless jockey Victor Espinoza. “We’ll never have another one like this,” Baffert told Espinoza after he dismounted Pharoah for the final time.

Pharoah represented more than Baffert’s fourth Kentucky Derby champion, following Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). He viewed him unlike any other horse that passed through his powerhouse barn – he was poetry in motion.

“What I miss most about him is when I breezed him, he was so much fun to watch him work,” Baffert said. “He moved effortlessly.”

According to Baffert, this Derby carries a “totally different vibe.”

“I feel under the radar and I should be under the radar,” he said.

He noted how important the post position draw on May 4 will be and then the break from the starting gate with a full field of 20 expected. He acknowledged that Nyquist, the Breeders’ Cup and 2-year-old champion, is a deserving favorite.

“Nyquist has a winning spirit,” he said. “He’s fast, he stays out of trouble, and he is the horse to beat.”

No wonder Baffert clings to the recent past, understanding how glorious a time it was.

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