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As Preakness approaches, 2015 Triple Crown pursuit is in good hands

With the Preakness on Saturday, American Pharoah's Bob Baffert is calmer after a stressful Kentucky Derby

It might have been just another routine morning at Santa Anita last week. But it couldn't be. It is Triple Crown season.

That doesn't mean they sell more coffee at Clockers' Corner. Or that the steady rat-a-tat of training horses speeding past is louder.

It just means there is a different vibe in the air.

That's always so when a local trainer has just won the first leg of the ever-elusive Triple. And especially so with this local.

The relatively new phrase popping up in newspaper stories and sports telecasts is that horse racing's Triple Crown has become "the most difficult record to achieve in sports."

Somewhere, Joe DiMaggio is raising his hand about his 56-game hitting streak. John Wooden might be doing the same about those 10 NCAA basketball titles.

The longer something in sports goes without being surpassed, the more cherished it is. And there is no question that racing is driven, and maybe even a bit desperate, to add a 12th name to a Triple Crown list whose last entry was Affirmed in 1978.

Now, a nation turns its lonely eyes to the only person who can, currently, get it done. That's not because Bob Baffert is so gifted as a trainer of thoroughbreds, which he is. It is because his horse, American Pharoah, won the Kentucky Derby. Nobody else has a shot.

With the next leg of this legendary pursuit fast approaching, Saturday's Preakness at Baltimore's Pimlico, we went for Clockers' Corner coffee and a visit with Baffert.

We expected calm and cool. We presumed complete confidence would ooze from a man who has done this before. Baffert has won four Derbies. The premise was that, while talk of a Triple Crown is premature before the Preakness, there could be no better trainer and spokesman to get it done, while gracefully handling the inherent pressures along the way.

It turns out that Baffert is handling it. But, by his own admission, "coolly" might not be the best adverb.

"I never felt more pressure," he said. "All week in Louisville, I had every rifle pointed at me. I know I had the best horses [American Pharoah and third-place finisher Dortmund.] But everybody else knew it, too."

Baffert hasn't just won four Kentucky Derbies. He has won the Preakness with all three previous Derby champs — Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. He has walked the Triple Crown walk before. The assumption was that this would feel like the same old, same old.

No so.

"I worried all week," he said. "Then I got sick a couple of days before the race. Then the draw kept going on and on and neither of my horses was picked yet and all the bad number post positions were still there. I remember thinking if I got Nos. 1, 2 or 3, I'd just come home."

The starting spots closest to the rail are least desirable in the usual Kentucky Derby starting field of 20 horses. The cavalry charge of outside horses collapsing down to the rail tends to bury the inside starters.

Eventually, American Pharoah drew the 18th hole, where he could be part of that collapsing field, and Dortmund drew an acceptable No. 8.

But Baffert's ulcers were stirred again on race day. At the Kentucky Derby, each horse is accompanied on a traditional walk over from the barns to the saddling paddock by owners, trainers, backstretch crews and families, as well as some media members. The attendance at this year's race was a record 170,513, and if you asked Baffert, 50% of them were walking with American Pharoah.

"I really got concerned," he said. "There were people everywhere. I didn't know any of them. They were running alongside, yelling and screaming and shooting cellphone pictures."

That sort of fan excitement is fine, except where there is a million-dollar animal involved.

"Pharoah's eyes got big," Baffert said. "The groom leading him was like a water skier. By the time we got him to the paddock, I thought we had lost the race. When a horse is that stirred up, it usually has left too much behind."

Baffert ordered a bucket of water tossed on Pharoah in the paddock and hoped for the best. That's what he got.

But walking to the viewing area for the race, he wouldn't have championed his own cause. He still felt ill, his other horses on the Churchill Downs card that day, including Breeders' Cup Classic champion Bayern, had all run poorly.

"I kept thinking, I may never have another chance," he said. "I was worried about so much stuff. My whole family was there, and I remembered when Silver Charm won, I didn't get my sister and brother-in-law into the winners' circle. Much was on my mind."

The fear of not winning, with the two favored horses coming out of his barn, was among those things. But when American Pharoah, under the ride from Victor Espinoza, took over in the stretch, Baffert's day of worry, hassle and chewed fingernails turned to joy and memories.

Baffert's 10-year-old son, Bode, who obviously wasn't around for any of his dad's previous three, told Baffert, "Thank you for fulfilling my Derby dream."

Heady stuff from a 10-year-old.

Next comes the Preakness. Baffert arrives Wednesday and will be the center of attention. Despite the rocky road he traveled to the finish line of the first leg, there are few more qualified to navigate all this if it gets to another day of reckoning at the Belmont.

This year's Triple Crown pursuit is in good hands, despite the nervous Kentucky Derby.

With that pursuit comes celebrity. Baffert is in a perfect spot. He is already there.

That means, these days, coffee tastes much better at Clockers' Corner.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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