LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bob Baffert began his final full day as American Pharoah's trainer by walking the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup Classic winner into the middle of an adoring crowd outside his Keeneland barn.
More than 200 people, many clutching cameras, pressed close to the thoroughbred, who stayed remarkably calm as always despite the tumult. Hands reached out to pet the champ. Some people cried while others presented him with his favorite snack of peeled baby carrots.
American Pharoah seemed to be enjoying his first full day of retirement Sunday.
"This horse is so special, that's why I shared him with everybody," Baffert said. "He loves people. That's why he has such a great following."
Now comes the hard part.
Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat and their families will bid farewell to American Pharoah on Monday when he heads to Ashford Stud in nearby Versailles to begin his new breeding career.
"I don't feel like I'm leaving him. We'll come visit him a lot," said Baffert, who is based in Southern California. "It's going to be tougher when I go home and I see that empty stall."
Before departing the barn, the Zayat family exchanged hugs with Baffert, who drew laughs when he instructed his client, "Find me another one."
American Pharoah took his handlers and a beleaguered sport on an exhilarating ride, becoming the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years before ending his career with a 6 1/2-length victory in the Classic on Saturday.
At Ashford Stud, American Pharoah will live a pampered life while he goes about producing future progeny that could be on the racetrack in a few years.
"I wish I could have kept him another year to race, it would have been the icing on the cake," Zayat said. "But the reality of the business does not allow us to do that."
The costs of insuring a Triple Crown champion are prohibitive, which led Zayat to sell Pharoah's breeding rights to Coolmore-owned Ashford Stud before he won the Belmont in early June.
"He's been running so many times and it's time for him to have a nice life," jockey Victor Espinoza said.
Zayat is pondering a way to celebrate his horse's achievements and solicited fans at the barn for ideas.
"A Triple Crown winner should go out in a way that is appropriate of how he was embraced by the fans and the sport," he said. "The question is how?"
While Zayat considers party plans, Baffert is looking toward next year and horses in his barn that could succeed on the Triple Crown trail. One of them is Mor Spirit, who won for the first time last week at Santa Anita.
"It's spelled wrong, so maybe that's a clue," Baffert said, noting American Pharoah's name was misspelled, too.
"As a trainer, you have to put Pharoah in the rear-view mirror and keep going on, but they all have a special place in our hearts. These really good horses leave a piece of them with me," he said.
Whenever Baffert starts feeling down about Pharoah's departure, he can restore his spirits by watching a video of one of the colt's victories.
"He was the perfect racehorse," he said.