The wait is over. History has been made. The sporting world has its newest hero.
On a near-perfect Saturday at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., American Pharoah became the first winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown in 37 years. He now takes his place as racing royalty by becoming the 12th horse to win this three-race series.
The 3-year-old colt was spectacular in winning the grueling 1 1/2-mile race. American Pharoah’s quest started five weeks ago when he won the Kentucky Derby and followed that up two weeks later by winning the Preakness Stakes.
American Pharoah broke slowly but went immediately to the lead and held about a 3/4-length advantage over Materiality through the backstretch and into the final turn.
The race was very moderately paced, meaning that the front-running style of American Pharoah might hold up.
It more than did that.
As American Pharoah entered the home stretch, he had about a length on the late-charging Frosted and wasn’t giving up any ground. With 1/8 of a mile to go he widened his lead and pulled away from the field for an uncontested and unquestioned victory. His winning margin was 5 1/2 lengths.
“I think it's is owed to the fans of New York who kept showing up, paying their money and hoping,” trainer Bob Baffert said of the Triple Crown. “I still cant believe it happened and I’m just blessed with a super 3-year-old by the name of American Pharoah. I couldn’t be happier.”
Jockey Victor Espinoza talked about how confident he was in American Pharoah before slipping into some numerology.
“Twelfth Triple Crown,” Espinoza said. “I have 12 brothers and sisters: 12-12.”
American Pharoah paid $3.50, $2.80 and $2.50. Frosted finished second and returned $3.50 and $2.90. Keen Ice was third paying $4.60.
Baffert and Espinzoa, who both make Southern California their home, are now in the rarified air of being the only active people in their professions to have won a Triple Crown.
This was the fourth time that Baffert had found himself going for a Triple Crown. Earlier attempts with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) all came up short. It was Espinoza’s third time going for the Triple Crown. He was the jockey for War Emblem and last year with California Chrome.
The win is a much-needed boost to horse racing, which has been in decline for many years. Recent movies have been made about two horses, Seabiscuit and Secretariat, that have rekindled America’s love affair with the horse.
But those horses are so long gone and no equine superstar has stepped up to take their place.
Now there is one.
American Pharoah was the 14th horse since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978 to have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Twelve of them have gone to post and failed. The other one was three years ago when I’ll Have Another was scratched before the race. Last year California Chrome finished fourth in his attempt.
Even though American Pharoah has strong local connections, he did his important prep work back east. After losing his first race at Del Mar as a 2-year-old, he has won seven straight races. His first win was at Del Mar and second at Santa Anita before Baffert shipped him out.
Baffert had another promising 3-year-old in his barn named Dortmund. He didn’t want Dortmund and American Pharoah to run against each other for fear of stunting one of their attempts to make it to the Kentucky Derby.
So, it was American Pharoah who was shipped to Oaklawn Park, where he won the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. It was the eight-length breeze in the Arkansas Derby that convinced Baffert he might have something special.
American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby with a hard stretch ride in which Espinzoa went to the whip 32 times. The horse won by a length. And then in a driving rainstorm over a sloppy course, American Pharoah romped to a seven-length win in the Preakness.
The difficulty in winning the Belmont isn’t so much the 1 1/2-mile distance as running three races in five weeks. Horses generally don’t run more than once a month and quality stakes horses even less frequently.
American Pharoah was the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races. And, other than Tale of Verve, the only one to run in the Preakness.
Last year, California Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn went on a rant after his horse lost because the three horses that finished ahead of California Chrome were fresh since they did not run in all three Triple Crown races.
He called those connections “cheaters” and taking the “coward’s way out.”
The ugliness of that moment has certainly been replaced by the jubilant people surrounding American Pharoah on Saturday. Especially his owner, Ahmet Zyat.
“This is for the sport that has been [wanting this] 37 years,” Zyat said, holding the Triple Crown trophy. “We need stars. I’m so thrilled, honored, privileged, humbled, excited. This is all for you.”
Since American Pharoah is no Mr. Ed, you won’t see him making the talk show circuit. But Baffert is likely to fill that role nicely.
American Pharoah is likely to take some time off and possibly return to Southern California where he could be pointed toward the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. It’s unknown if he’ll race as a 4-year-old.
But that’s the future. For now, horse racing couldn’t be any happier living in the present.