LOUISVILLE — With his sun-kissed skin and his perfectly parted shock of gray hair hanging just so over his darkened glasses, Bob Baffert more than looks the part of California cool.
But the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the trainer was anything but.
Maybe it didn't show when the cameras were on or the notepads were out, but Baffert never felt cool despite having the two Kentucky Derby favorites in American Pharoah and Dortmund.
"I was on pins and needles all week long," the 62-year-old trainer confessed after American Pharoah won the Derby on Saturday in front of a Churchill Downs record crowd.
He felt ill early in the week. "It was just the stress. I was a mess."
The trainer who has been to so many Derbys that he could write a Churchill Downs tour book was a mess because he knows a Derby win isn't guaranteed.
They're like mining for gold in California after the rush.
It had been more than a decade since he last trained a Kentucky Derby winner with War Emblem. He started to wonder if he'd lost the touch.
Baffert had trained 12 Derby horses since War Emblem's 2002 win gave him his third victory in the first race of the Triple Crown, but he had hit the board only twice since then. So he knew the discomfort of a loss, or as he put it getting "completely punched in the face.
"It's tough," he said of winning the Kentucky Derby. "I've been here so many times and I've come here and there's been a lot of disappointments. I prepare myself for the disappointment constantly. You never know."
The trainer confessed that he wondered if he was going to win another. The first two, first in 1997 with Silver Charm and then a year later with Real Quiet, had come so quickly and seemingly effortlessly.
"You get to a point in your life where you think, 'Maybe it's just not going to happen for me.' Maybe it's not meant to be or whatever," Baffert said.
"And then they sent me this horse and I thought, 'Wow. Here's my chance, don't mess it up, Bob. This is it.'"
American Pharoah owner Ahmad Zayat, who won his first Derby after coming in second three times, had more faith in his trainer than perhaps Baffert had in himself.
"Bob has an uncanny brilliancy of being in tune to his horses," Zayat explained afterward. "And that is something I have never seen from other top trainers in America."
Baffert was in tune enough with his horses Dortmund and American Pharoah that he felt good about their chances as they made the final turn for home and the crowd got louder.
The mess that was Bob Baffert in the days and weeks leading up to this 141st Kentucky Derby felt a calm wash over him.
He felt that ease that had eluded him for years in this race at this place.
As his family got more nervous and worried in the final seconds, Baffert's wife, Jill, grew concerned.
"I heard my wife say, 'He's not going to do it,'" Baffert recalled.
But he knew better.
He remembered the feeling he thought he'd forgotten as he became just the fourth trainer to have four Derby victories.
"I said, 'He's going to do it.' I just knew it."