Baffert, Zayat back at Belmont, recall Triple Crown moments
NEW YORK (AP) On his first visit back to Belmont Park since American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, Bob Baffert basked in the memories.
''It was exciting to come back to the scene of the biggest accomplishment, ever, in my life,'' the Hall of Fame trainer told a group of fans at the track Thursday night.
Baffert, along with owner Ahmed Zayat and son Justin Zayat, attended a Q&A session set up by the New York Racing Association. American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years after sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
On Saturday, Preakness winner Exaggerator will take on a dozen rivals in the 148th edition of the Belmont. Neither Baffert nor Zayat have any horses in the race, but they are represented in other races on the Belmont undercard.
''Walking through the paddock for the first time brought back great memories. It gave me goosebumps. It never gets old,'' Baffert said. ''We have a lot of fans out there, and to this day people want to know how he's doing. That horse touched a lot of people.''
American Pharoah closed out his history-making racing career with a rousing victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland last fall, and was retired to Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky. He is commanding $200,000 per breeding session.
Replays of the Belmont were shown during the discussion.
''Whenever I watch the replay, and I watch it many times, it automatically brings me laughter and happiness,'' Zayat said. ''It's always unbelievably joyful; it's just majestic.''
The walk around the track has to be extra rewarding to Baffert. Three times before American Pharoah came along, the trainer nearly won the Triple Crown. In 1997, Silver Charm won the Derby and Preakness before falling short in the Belmont. A year later, Real Quiet lost by a nose to Victory Gallop, and in 2002, War Emblem finished eighth in the final leg of the Triple Crown.
There is no Triple Crown on the line Saturday, but Exaggerator has a chance to become the 12th horse to win the Preakness and Belmont after coming up short in the Derby.
Exaggerator will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, the brother of the colt's trainer, Keith Desormeaux. Colts trained by two-time Belmont winner Todd Pletcher are the second and third choices: Stradivari at 5-1 and Destin at 6-1.
Three other trainers have two horses each in the 1 1/2-mile race. Steve Asmussen has Creator and Gettysburg, Dallas Stewart sends out Seeking the Soul and Forever d'Oro, and Dale Romans saddles Preakness runner-up Cherry Wine and Brody's Cause.
Exaggerator has won five of 11 starts, with earnings of nearly $3 million. It's the first time the colt will be the favorite since he won the Delta Jackpot last November.
''I honestly think the pressure's off. It's more excitement. It's the Belmont Stakes,'' Keith Desormeaux said. ''It's a chance to prove my horse in yet another Grade 1 event. It's all gravy from here.''
While Keith Desormeaux is enjoying his first taste of the Triple Crown, Baffert will never forget last year.
''This was like walking into Yankee Stadium. It's a legendary place,'' Baffert said. ''Coming here, walking into the track and through the paddock, we felt all again like it was yesterday. It brought back all of the feelings.''