LOUISVILLE — You could say this was a perfect Kentucky Derby Day.
The weather could not have been better, blue skies and warm temperatures. The crowd at Churchill Downs was a record with 170,513 jamming the iconic facility on Central Avenue. The race featured a clean trip and exciting finish with a near to-the-form outcome, the top four finishers being among the top five betting choices.
And then there was the perfect winner.
So often a horse heralded as a superhorse is exposed when things get real at a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May, but that wasn't the case on this Saturday as 5-2 favorite American Pharoah showed he is indeed the real deal, besting Firing Line by a length and stablemate Dortmund by 3.
It was the fourth Kentucky Derby triumph for 62-year-old trainer Bob Baffert, tying him with D. Wayne Lukas and "Derby Dick" Thompson behind Ben Jones' six victories. It was the first for owner Ahmed Zayat, who had owned the runner-up on three previous occasions.
"Finally," exclaimed the 52-year-old native of Cairo, Egypt, when he was introduced as the Derby winner in the post-race press conference. "No more seconds."
Actually, you could make the case that the real winner this glorious weekend was Churchill Downs, the venerable track that had taken some publicity hits in its modern transformation.
That was especially the case last year when owners and horsemen went public with grievances about the way they had been treated.
A year later, the gripes gave way to what Baffert described as "just a positive vibe all week."
In fact, Zayat made it a special point to commend the turnaround.
"As a person who has been coming here and having more than one Derby runner, I have seen 180 percent change in whole attitude and the whole organization A to Z," said the owner in unprompted remarks. "It is very, very hard, things that happened one way and to come and change and do it in the way they have done it, to do all the things, it's something that I personally applaud."
The tone was set on Friday when a record crowd of 123,763 showed up for a sun-splashed Kentucky Oaks day.
It saw popular trainer Larry Jones, who had been severely injured in a fall off a horse just a year ago, win his third Kentucky Oaks, and his third for former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, when Lovely Maria hit the wire first in the sport's most important race for fillies.
Even better, it was the first Oaks win for 56-year-old jockey Kirwan Clark, who captured his first Grade I win when Lovely Maria won the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland a month before.
Factor in that Lovely Maria was named for a child with disabilities that Gov. Jones met at his favorite Florida hotel and there more than enough heartwarming stories to go around.
If the Oaks was the third win for the Jones Boys, the Derby was a long-awaited breakthrough for Zayat, who had finished second with Pioneerof the Nile in 2009, Nehro in 2011 and Bodemeister in 2012.
In fact, as American Pharoah headed down the stretch, fighting it out with the game Firing Line and Baffert's other big gun, Dortmund, Zayat saw his wife, Joanne, crying.
"At first they were tears of fear," Zayat said. "And then they were tears of joy."
Despite American Pharoah's obvious raw talent, the skeptics wondered if he had things too much his own way in previous races, romping to victories, including an 8-length score in the Arkansas Derby.
How would Pharoah do when really tested by other good horses?
"People were saying superhorse and I hated that," said Baffert. "But now you can say anything you want."
Pharoah said it all on the track. Placed by jockey Victor Espinoza in a perfect spot just outside the leaders on the first turn, he made his victorious move in the stretch to take the lead and keep on going.
"I came with good horses before," Zayat said. "Today, I came with the star."
The star moves next to Baltimore and the second leg of the elusive Triple Crown, a feat no horse has accomplished since Affirmed in 1978.
"If all goes well, I don't see any reason not to go," Baffert said. "The Preakness is one of my favorite races. The next one, we call it the fun one."
It will be hard to top this one, however.
This was a perfect Kentucky Derby.