They spotted him even as the swarm of media threatened to swallow him up, and in one grand motion the fans in the Keeneland boxes stood as Tom McCarthy ambled his way toward the tunnel beneath the grandstand.
For a few brief moments, McCarthy had to halt his interviews to doff his cap as he was treated to a standing ovation by some of the 27,788 in attendance.
It was a reception in appreciation of a feat unlike any other in the current racing landscape.
The one-horse powerhouse of the McCarthy stable provided the fairy tale ending on Saturday when General Quarters pulled off the upset in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes to cement his spot in the Kentucky Derby three weeks from now.
The story of McCarthy is the kind the racing industry often yearns for but rarely expects to receive — especially in this age of the super stables.
The 75-year-old retired high school principal owns and trains General Quarters — the only horse in his barn and, at the moment, the only horse he needs.
A son of Sky Mesa, General Quarters ranged up on the outside around the far turn and kicked clear of runner-up Hold Me Back to capture Keeneland's marquee race by 11/2 lengths.
"He trained like a champion all week, and after that breeze last week (a bullet five-furlong breeze in :58.20 at Churchill) I knew I had him right where I wanted him," said McCarthy, who calmly took in the celebration as family and friends exploded around him. "I was very, very confident that he would run a wonderful race. I think he exhibited the tenacity to go on to the Derby."
General Quarters, who was claimed by McCarthy for $20,000 after winning his career debut at Churchill last May, is an ideal representative of McCarthy's perseverance.
After winning his first race, General Quarters did not see the winner's circle for the next seven races until taking the Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 14.
The gray colt faltered the next time out, finishing fifth in the Grade III Tampa Bay Derby — not that it shattered McCarthy's faith.
"The only reason he was fifth is he got in so much trouble," McCarthy said. "He got in trouble three times during the race. I think he was demoralized more than anything. But he came out of it, and this is the result of it."
With jockey Eibar Coa aboard him for the first time, General Quarters rated close up to the leaders on the outside path in fifth next to English-invader Mafaaz while Join in the Dance cut tepid fractions of :24.40 and :49.06 up front.
Midway around the final turn, General Quarters pulled Coa up to challenge Join in the Dance — who was weakening on the front end — and had rocketed clear by two lengths by the time the 11-horse field hit midstretch.
"He placed himself in very good position," said Coa, who also pilots Musket Man, winner of the Tampa Bay and Illinois Derby, and indicated he might stay on that one. "In the straight when I asked him, he gave me what he had. He showed up today, and he's definitely going to be one of the horses to beat in the Derby."
WinStar Farm's Hold Me Back, winner of the Grade II Lane's End Stakes in his first start of the year, delivered a strong kick from ninth to finish 11/4-lengths clear of third-place finisher Massone.
"If you look at the upside, it's a good thing he gave an honest and hard race," trainer Bill Mott said. "The camp is anxious to go to Churchill."
Mafaaz, who earned an automatic spot in the Derby field when he won the Kentucky Derby Challenge Stakes at Kempton Park on March 18, was flat in his U.S. debut and came home eighth.
"They didn't go any pace did they?" trainer John Gosden said. "They went for a little walk and a sprint. I was a little disappointed, I thought there might be a bit more pace. We'll see how the horse is tomorrow and make our decisions (on whether to go on to the Derby)."
While McCarthy remained the picture of calm even through the stretch drive, those closest to him couldn't help but be overwhelmed by what the resilient horseman had just pulled off and what could lie ahead.
"The man has had a 50-year-long dream. How can you not pull for this guy?" said McCarthy's son-in-law Mike Adams. "At times we were all wondering if this was ever going to lead to anything, and hopefully we're now on the right track to making things even bigger.
"To see somebody at his age get up every morning at 3:30 in the morning for 50 years... this was decades in the making."