Just like everyone else, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert wondered if winning the Triple Crown had become impossible. Had the modern thoroughbred become too weak to handle the grind of three difficult races in five weeks? Were the fresh fields of competitors too much?
Then, he met a 2-year-old named American Pharoah, who ran with the sort of effortless sizzle found in only the greatest champions. For all the wonderful horses Baffert had trained, he'd never seen anything like it. On top of his speed, the horse shipped all over the country without losing a step or becoming ornery.
"It's not the breed," Baffert said at a news conference Sunday morning, reflecting on the Triple Crown his horse had won the previous evening at Belmont Park. "You just have to wait for one of these superhorses to come around. They don't come around often. And then they have to be tough."
It was a far cry from the day-after news conference a year ago, where California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, questioned whether any horse could handle what he deemed an unfair test.
It took just 12 months to learn Coburn was wrong, though racing lovers had waited 37 years for a horse to exorcise the ghosts of Belmont failures past. The questions quickly turned to American Pharoah's future schedule and his potential impact on a struggling sport, but Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat mostly wanted to soak in the moment.
The trainer had received an estimated 400 text messages of congratulation in the previous 15 hours and had hung out with former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He'd thought warmly of all his past clients who'd dreamed of ending the Triple Crown drought. But he hadn't lost his sense of humor.
Baffert led American Pharoah out of his barn a little before 8 a.m. Sunday to pose for photos and mug in the background as the trainer and jockey Victor Espinoza were interviewed on NBC's Weekend Today. The mighty bay colt came out of Saturday's race fit, if a tad tired.
"He looked like I could run him back in three weeks," Baffert marveled. "He's just that kind of horse."
Trainer Bill Mott, who'd worked with American Pharoah's sire, Pioneer of the Nile, stopped by for a close look. Baffert recalled doing the same when Mott was training the great Cigar.
"Even as trainers, we're all still in awe of the superstars of the sport," Baffert said.
After his photo session, American Pharoah boarded a charter flight back to Louisville, Kentrucky, where he prepared for all three legs of the Triple Crown.
Baffert said American Pharoah likely will run two or three more times this year, with the $5 million Breeder's Cup Classic in late October a likely goal. Possible options for a comeback race include the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey or the Aug. 29 Travers Stakes in New York.
American Pharoah's schedule will be of great interest to an industry that has long coveted a star of this ilk. Zayat said he takes seriously the responsibility of promoting racing.
"I think we owe it to the sport to do the right thing," he said, noting he still controls the colt's racing schedule despite the fact he sold his breeding rights to Coolmore Ashford Stud for nearly $14 million. "We're not thinking about the money or the value. When the horse is ready, we're not going to be scared of running him. It's all about the fans now."
Baffert questioned how much impact American Pharoah could make if he continued running as a 4-year-old, which Zayat has said is unlikely but not impossible.
"Joe Public, they really just jump on the classics," Baffert said, referring to the Triple Crown series, run exclusively by 3-year-olds.
Now that questions of American Pharoah's quality are settled, horse lovers will move on to speculating about his carryover effect on the rest of an industry that has struggled with declines in attendance, breeding activity and mainstream interest in the 37 years since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown.
Sal Sinatra, general manager of Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park, said Saturday was a surreal day that felt like a culmination of his lifetime in the industry.
"If this horse does run more this year, the sport will definitely benefit," he said. "It was a great day for horse racing and all sports."
He said he wasn't sure if he'd run any promotions in Maryland specifically playing off the Triple Crown, but said it's possible.
Beyond big crowds at what few races the new superstar runs, Baffert said he envisions a potential effect on the breeding industry, as casual fans recognize that great talents such as American Pharoah and California Chrome came from relatively modest pedigrees.
"I think it has to only be a plus for our industry," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trained Belmont runner-up Frosted. "It has to be a plus. Hopefully, he continues to race this year and helps our industry."
He paused. "Or not," he continued with a laugh, "and then at least I won't have to run against him."
The world did not tilt off its axis at the track where American Pharoah made history. McLaughlin was back in his customary seat along the apron at 8 a.m. Sunday, watching horses work out over the long expanse of dirt.
"It was a great day for our industry," he said. "American Pharoah did everything everybody thought he could do, and he did it effortlessly.
Like virtually every trainer at his level, McLaughlin has given his life to the racing game, and Saturday's race meant more to him than a mere loss to a good horse.
"He's as impressive as I've seen. Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Affirmed were before my time. So this horse has been the most impressive I can recall."
He'd receive no disagreement from Baffert.