By RON FLATTER
ELMONT, New York – If last year’s historic, drought-breaking Triple Crown had been a blockbuster movie, American Pharoah’s name would have been above the title – the first name seen in the trailer.
Right behind him would have been Bob Baffert, the trainer, and the Zayat family, the owners.
Never mind the stars, though. What about the cameos? Baffert’s 11-year-old son Bode would be an easy-to-guess natural. But who knew that Secretariat and rival trainer Todd Pletcher had memorable appearances in this story?
They were part of the tales told Thursday evening at an hour-long, public Q&A with Baffert and the Zayats here at Belmont Park, About 120 fans came after the day’s last race to the Horsemen’s Lounge near the clubhouse to hear American Pharoah’s connections reminisce about what happened 369 days earlier in front of 90,000 people.
It was the first time since that weekend like no other in the preceding 37 years that Baffert was back at Belmont Park, reunited with Zayat and son – lead owner Ahmed and racing and stallion manager Justin.
Baffert recalled the victorious walk from the trainer’s perch in the grandstand down to the winner’s circle – a long procession of handshakes and congratulations in the deafeningly, gleeful din. Then Baffert’s eyes locked onto 93-year-old Penny Chenery, the owner who celebrated in the same grandstand 42 years earlier when Secretariat won the Triple Crown.
“I saw her and said, ‘There’s Penny over there,’” Baffert said. “She’s always been a big fan. I saw her, and I gave her a big hug, and she said, ‘Congratulations. He looked so good.’ And I whispered in her ear, ‘He’s no Secretariat, but this is as close as I’m going to get.’ And she said, ‘Right answer.’”
Kidded by track announcer and program emcee Larry Collmus about having thrown up after Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, Justin Zayat said he cast his gaze after the Belmont victory last June at the excitement that had been uncorked around him.
“I just looked up and I took in the whole entire crowd,” he said. “The first person besides my family that came and gave me a hug was Todd Pletcher, who was right behind us watching the race. I had just beaten his horses (Made From Lucky and Materiality) in the race. For him to come and pat me on the back and give me a big hug after that, it meant a lot.”
Pletcher also figured memorably in the days leading up to Pharoah’s last race – that exclamation point of a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last October. Baffert remembered it happening in Barn 62 at Keeneland, where he and Pletcher were sharing stable space.
“I was walking (Pharoah), taking him for a few laps around there, and with him you had to walk really fast,” Baffert said. “He’s great cardio if you want to get yourself fit. I’d walk him for a half-an-hour and he would burn me out.
“So Todd Pletcher is in the shed row, and I said, ‘Todd, you need to grab this horse and walk him around. It’s unbelievable the way he walks.’ And he says, ‘No way. I’m not going to touch him. I’m not going to grab him. But I’ll walk next to you.’ So he walked next to me, and he saw just the way (Pharoah) would stride. Just the motion of his walk. And that’s what he had going for him.’”
Where Baffert was more anecdotal with his memories Thursday, Ahmed Zayat was more reflective, especially when he paid credit to the Hall of Fame trainer for his nearly two years of work with Pharoah.
“There’s something really called experience here,” Zayat said. “Watching Bob and how he works, he is an incredible perfectionist. Until the Triple Crown I would give Bob Baffert 70 percent credit and American Pharoah 30 percent credit.”
The team all remembered fondly the crowd estimated at 15,000 that poured into Saratoga to see Pharoah in a morning gallop that Baffert still says may have caused Pharoah’s loss to Keen Ice the following day in the Travers. But Ahmed Zayat also remembered how that loss steeled Baffert’s resolve not to let that happen again in the Breeders’ Cup.
“He was beating himself daily, saying ‘I cannot have a Triple Crown winner beaten.’” Zayat said. “We had a powerful team.”
“In other words,” Baffert said, “great horse.”
Now the Zayats are hoping Pharoah is a great stallion. They have a minority piece of the action run by new owner Coolmore at its Ashford Stud in Kentucky. Among the broodmares Pharoah has been servicing are the 12 owned by Zayat Stables.
“In the breeding shed he has a totally different occupation now,” said Baffert, who visited Pharoah last month before the Kentucky Derby. “It should make him feistier. They say when he makes a left going in the breeding shed, he gets all pumped up. His body just starts getting into it. But when he makes a right to see the fans, he just has his head down and knows this is strictly a petting session. He’s probably the most intelligent horse I’ve ever been around. He loves human contact.”
One such human who had a lot of contact with Pharoah was Bode Baffert, whose desire to be a meteorologist when he grows up had a direct impact on how the team endured last year’s torrential rain before the Preakness Stakes.
“Bode showed me on his little iPad the weather system that was coming in to Pimlico,” Baffert said. “He knew exactly what time it was going to hit. We felt a drop, and Bode said, ‘It’s here.’ We ran to the paddock area that’s enclosed there. Then the rain came into the paddock and the doors shut before the race. And Bode goes, ‘Dad, look at the rain come down. How are we going to get to the winner’s circle?’”
In a week that feels like something is missing at Belmont Park, that hour on the second floor of the grandstand Thursday brought it all into focus – and reinforced a feeling of inevitability that Baffert had last fall at Keeneland.
“Those last 30 days before the Breeders’ Cup, it was exciting but sad,” he said. “Because I knew we’re not going to see anything like this again.”