An hour before his date with history, trainer Bob Baffert stood outside of the assembly barn with his 10-year-old son, Bode.
Bode was nervous, his father less so. Baffert insisted there was no reason to worry and Bode, flipping his tie up and down replied, "but if we win, you'll finally be happy."
Happiness exploded in the stretch as American Pharoah stretched his lead, and the crowd erupted as the horse ended racing's jinx, becoming the first to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Baffert, calm throughout the race, punched the air as the win became obvious before embracing his wife, Jill, and then a tearful Bode.
The horse now joins the fraternity of champions, his name forever linked with the great ones such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Citation. His trainer walks in lockstep into history with him. Eighteen years and three failed Triple Crown tries later, Baffert finally steps into the ultimate winner's circle, one of just 11 trainers to win horse racing's most coveted and elusive prize.
His trademark plume of white hair is no longer misplaced and premature; it is hard earned by a life and a sport that have conspired to humble him.
The hotshot whippersnapper is now a heart attack survivor, the new kid on the block an elder statesman at 62.
And so you have to wonder if maybe there wasn't a master plan at work, a reason that he had to wait until now to enjoy his sport's sweetest victory.
Baffert, a former quarter-horse trainer, saddled his first Kentucky Derby horse in 1996 -- Cavonnier, who lost by a nose. Afterward, he said he was convinced he'd never win a Derby. Baffert not only claimed the next two, he wound up vying for a Triple Crown both times. By 2002, when he went for his triple shot at a triple, taking a run at history was almost commonplace for Baffert.
Of course, horse racing's footnotes have his thoroughbreds' hoofprints all over them: Silver Charm, chased down by Touch Gold in 1997; Real Quiet, beaten by a Victory Gallop head bob in 1998; and War Emblem, out as soon as the 2002 race begun, stumbling from the gate.
While his horses went oh-fer, Baffert went from zero to 100, an almost overnight sensation that took horse racing by storm. Savvy, smart and quotable, he gave a recognizable face to a sport that had none.
But so much so fast makes even the smartest horsemen think the game might be easier than it looks. Baffert fell into that trap, a legend in his own mind. The cruelty, and maybe the beauty, of horse racing is its ability to offer the stiffest of comeuppances. After War Emblem, Baffert didn't step into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle again until this past May, when American Pharoah led him there.
The Bob Baffert who stands in the winner's circle today belongs there. This sport is not meant for Johnny-Come-Lately; it is built for lifers, people who know the odds are constantly stacked against them, but play the game anyway.
"I've seen a lot,'' Baffert said the week before the Belmont, before running through his personal history of Triple Crown near misses.
Never, though, had he seen this, nor had a generation's worth of sports fans.
The week before the Belmont, Baffert was asked about the pressure of the race. He said age, coupled with familiarity and, yes, defeat had mellowed him. He knows what to expect in New York now -- the prep, the attention, the anticipation, and even the letdown.
"Up there, I start feeling pressure because I don't want to let those fans down for some reason,'' he said. "When I go there, the people that are there ask, 'Is this the one?" Like we go every year, is this the one?''
Finally, after a hot career start had been left simmering by the reality of horse racing, Baffert can say "yes."
This is the one.