It was the very definition of a group hug.
There in Keeneland's paddock area, under the iconic Sycamore tree, in the glow of the video board on which they watched American Pharoah win the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the Bafferts and Zayats threw their arms around each other in one final embrace of pure happiness.
We don't get many happy endings these days. We did Saturday. This 32nd Breeders' Cup gave us a beauty, right here at our very own Keeneland Race Course, when on a day of terrific racing and amazing stars, the best was saved for last.
"He gave everybody what they came to see," said owner Ahmed Zayat.
In the final race of his brilliant career, the Triple Crown champion American Pharoah became the Grand Slam champion, the first of its kind, by winning the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic in dominating and fitting fashion.
"We just wanted Pharoah to show up," said trainer Bob Baffert.
American Pharoah showed up all right, erasing any memories of that second-place finish in the Travers Stakes back in August by running the fastest time for a mile and a quarter (2:00.07) in the history of the track on any surface.
Pharoah wasn't the only one who showed up, either. In this, the Super Bowl of Thoroughbred racing, Songbird looked very much like the next superstar while running off with the Juvenile Fillies. Irish superstar Golden Horn was outdueled by another Irish star, Found, in a heart-stopping Breeders' Cup Mile.
Ken and Sarah Ramsey celebrated a Breeders' Cup victory just down the road from their home in Nicholasville when Stephanie's Kitten won the Filly and Mare Turf. Runhappy ran to a win in the Sprint, giving 32-year-old trainer Maria Borell of Beacon Hill Farm an improbable Breeders' Cup victory.
Maybe even best of all, and befitting the global reach of the sport, a group of Mongolian owners, outfitted in native dress, cheered Mongolian Saturday to a win in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
Keeneland showed up, too, proving to be both charming and mighty, pulling off an international event to glowing reviews. This is, after all, the horse capital of the world.
And yet, speaking of showing up, surely most of the crowd of 50,155 showed up to see the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years face his final test before being retired to Coolmore's Ashford Stud. Pharoah was the show.
The Classic may have lost a little something when two-time champion mare Beholder scratched out of the race when she bled during a Thursday workout. Still, this was history, the first time a Triple Cown winner had raced in the Breeders' Cup. It was also American Pharoah's one last shot at an appropriate ending.
Zayat and Baffert both admitted they had beaten themselves up after Pharoah's runner-up finish to Keen Ice in the Travers. Not that the duo regretted taking American Pharoah to Saratoga. The fan reception at the legendary New York track had been so memorable, Baffert said Saturday it was "the best day of my career."
No one wants to see a great champion leave defeated, however. So this finale was a mix of emotions and pressure. In the days before the race, Baffert was walking Pharoah while taping an interview when he suddenly became emotional, turning to NBC's (and Lexington's) Kenny Rice and saying, "This is the last time I'll be doing this."
When post time arrived, the Zayats, Bafferts, friends and colleagues remained in the paddock area to watch on the video board high on the stone façade at the back of the track.
Baffert passed the nervous minutes by joking around with the media. "I remember the days when I was just hoping to have a horse in the Breeders' Cup," he said.
Just before the horses were to be loaded into the starting gate, Baffert rubbed the shoulders of his wife, Jill, then lightly kissed the back of her head. As the horses headed to the first turn and then down the backstretch, Baffert first watched, then cheered. With Pharoah turning for home in obvious command, Zayat didn't even watch the final eighth of a mile.
"I just closed my eyes," he said.
Meanwhile, Bob and Jill Baffert hugged and soon the hugs had gone viral until they condensed into one joyous hug among people brought together by the talents of one amazing animal.
"What a horse!" repeated Bob Baffert. "What a horse!"
What a day.