American Pharoah is horse racing's Triple Crown prince with Belmont win

American Pharoah ends 37 years of horse racing frustration by winning the Triple Crown

ELMONT, N.Y. — Thirty-seven years of waiting ended with a ferocious charge down the homestretch.

Decades of near-misses and disappointment gave way to a horse that had a sense of history from the start.

On a spring afternoon when a gray sky turned sunny, American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes by more than five lengths to complete thoroughbred racing's vaunted and elusive Triple Crown.

"The way he runs," jockey Victor Espinoza said, "you don't even feel it when he goes that fast."

Pure speed translated into one of those moments that seemed to transcend sport, captivating a nation that had been closely following the quest.

Only a dozen horses have won all three of racing's biggest events — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont — over the last 96 years. The last was Affirmed in 1978.

American Pharoah emerged from the Southern California stables of trainer Bob Baffert to join that list in convincing fashion.

"I really felt I had the horse," Baffert said. "I told Victor in the paddock, 'Dude, he is ready.'"

Baffert qualifies as a rock star in his sport, quick with a quote, instantly recognizable by his white hair and sunglasses. The son of an Arizona rancher made a name for himself with quarter horses at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County before jumping to the more glamorous world of thoroughbreds.

Three times he had come to the Belmont, with a shot at winning all three Triple Crown races within a five-week period. Three times, he had fallen short.

"It takes a special horse," he said.

If there was any doubt that American Pharoah qualified, it surfaced in the first few seconds as the 3-year-old started slowly, giving the rest of the field hope.

"I tried to be close to him," said Irad Ortiz Jr., the jockey aboard fourth-place finisher Mubtaahij. "I kept following him and my horse ran very, very good."

Espinoza did his best to remain calm, guiding American Pharoah into a slight lead around the first turn, then backing off a bit to let the horse find a comfortable rhythm so he had plenty left for the end of the race.

The Belmont has squashed so many Triple Crown dreams, in large part, because it is the longest of the Triple Crown races at a grueling 11/2 miles.

And contenders often face opponents who are fresh because they have skipped the Derby or the Preakness, or both.

Since Affirmed, American Pharoah was the 13th horse to start the Belmont after winning the first two legs. This year, he was the only horse to run all three races.

In thoroughbred racing history, Triple Crowns have tended to come in bunches, with long stretches in between.

After Sir Barton in 1919, it took another 11 years for the next winner, Gallant Fox, to come along. That was when a New York sportswriter coined the term "Triple Crown."

The ensuing two decades saw a winner every few years, followed by another 25-year drought. The legendary Secretariat finally broke through in 1973. Seattle Slew won in 1977, a year before Affirmed.

Since then, the sport has suffered from waning interest and declining attendance.

Every few years seemed to bring a spark — hopefuls such as California Chrome in 2014 — but those high points ended in letdowns.

"It's tough," Baffert said last week. "I've seen great horses get beat."

That included three of his own, with Silver Charm losing the Belmont by three-quarters of a length in 1997 and Real Quiet finishing second by a nose in 1998. War Emblem, who stumbled early in the 2002 Belmont, never really had a chance.

This time, Baffert had a horse that needed urging — and the whip — from Espinoza to win the Derby, but looked powerful running away from the field in a torrential downpour at the Preakness.

Still, the 62-year-old trainer headed for New York insisting that he was ready to lose, saying: "You have to prepare yourself for disappointment, otherwise it wears on you."

Too make matters worse, Baffert arrived at Belmont Park on Saturday morning without the medication he has taken since surviving a heart attack in Dubai three years ago.

"So I had to keep cool," he said.

It helped to see the body language of his jockey down that backstretch. Espinoza — and American Pharoah — looked confident and relaxed.

From back in the pack, jockey Gary Stevens — riding seventh-place finisher Tale Of Verve — could see it too. American Pharoah "ran a hell of a race," he said. "That's a hell of a horse."

A deafening roar swelled from the crowd of 90,000 as the field turned for home. Two rivals, Frosted in second place and Keen Ice in third, were close enough to make a move but only for a moment.

Espinoza went to the whip, kicking American Pharoah into another gear.

"He just took off," the jockey said. "It's just an amazing feeling that you have when you're 20 yards from the wire."

Baffert called it "that beautiful mode … the way he just goes over the ground."

Crossing the finish line, Espinoza shook his whip in the air before taking an extended victory lap to let the crowd of 90,000 continue cheering.

Later, in a news conference, there was talk of historic significance. Owner Ahmed Zayat said he was glad to give his sport a much-need boost. Much credit was given to Baffert's training and Espinoza's race-day savvy.

But, in the end, Baffert insisted on shifting the focus. All the credit, he said, should go to the horse.

A horse that had accomplished one of sport's extraordinary feats. A horse that had ended the long wait.

"It was about him," Baffert said. "Because he's the one who did it."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
69°