Saturday June 6, 2015 - Belmont, New York
It was a day that would make any Pharaoh proud - as they were into competitions and kudos.
On a picture perfect day here in the city an electrified crowd cheered as American Pharoah ridden by my favorite jockey Victor Espinoza - wearing a jersey with a "Big Z" on it - won the Triple Crown after 37 years - at the 147th Belmont Stakes. What a horse!
There is something about American Pharoah and the movement of time that captured my attention each time I saw him race - time was being manipulated. Espinoza later stated he felt as if he were riding on a cloud. "You don't even feel him. It feels like you are going in slow motion." This is how reality appears when time is altered perhaps by the Big Z.
In previous years ...
The images were grainy, the characters getting old, the legends becoming more distant. Year by year, as horse racing yearned for its high-definition star to connect this generation to the last, the task was becoming mythical, the period gatherings here at Belmont Park almost fatalistic.
As one name after the other fell by the wayside over the last 37 years, the pedestal for all-time greats like Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed became even higher to the point of being unreachable. For each Triple Crown bid that fell short, the question became even more pronounced: Would we ever see another one like them?
The answer came on a cool Saturday afternoon in New York, as 90,000 fans shook Belmont's venerable grandstand and American Pharoah spun off the final turn like he was shot out of a sling, running away from Frosted and into the history books. With a performance befitting the club he has now joined, American Pharoah went wire-to-wire to win the Belmont by 5 1/2 lengths, turning in the sixth-fastest running of the 1 1/2-mile race and finally giving horse racing a 12th Triple Crown winner.
"It's really about defining the greatness of American Pharoah," said owner Ahmed Zayat, who bred the horse and also raced his sire, Pioneer of the Nile. "I've said he's a very good horse, he could be special but in order for you to come and win the Triple Crown you have to define greatness. He does everything so easy. We all wanted it for the sport."
For all the speculation about whether the Triple Crown had become unattainable and the talk about whether modern Thoroughbreds - who don't race as often as their ancestors and are bred more for speed over stamina - could withstand the grind of three races in five weeks, it turned out the sport merely needed a superstar to transcend those obstacles.
All week, the team around American Pharoah was confident it had that superstar in its barn. Despite the history working against him, American Pharoah was thriving physically following his seven-length romp in the Preakness. He had two impressive workouts at Churchill Downs, and upon arrival at Belmont Park on Tuesday, the horse attacked his morning gallops with vigor and had an apparent desire to do more. He was showing all the signs of a horse sitting on a big performance.
"There's something about this horse, he just brought it every time," said Bob Baffert, who had trained three of the 13 previous Triple Crown failures but was relaxed, almost serene, the entire week. "He's just an enjoyment to be around. I wasn't as nervous as I usually am because I really felt I had the horse."
Until the gates open, though, there's always a sense of dread - particularly when it comes to the Triple Crown. Horses have lost the Belmont all kinds of ways: Getting wiped out at the start, losing in the final few strides, simply not firing their best effort. But this time, Baffert's confidence was realized within the first few jumps.
Though American Pharoah leaned back in the starting gate right as it sprung open, causing him to start a hair behind the field, jockey Victor Espinoza immediately sent him to the front where he was basically in cruise control. By the time he got to the backstretch having set reasonable fractions of 24.08 seconds for the quarter-mile and 48.83 for the half, the race was all but over.
"I noticed as soon as I sat in the saddle there was so much power, so much energy," Espinoza said. "My plan was to open up a length out of the gate and hit the turn one or two lengths (ahead) and from there I can slow him down and let him be happy. It's so nice to be on a horse like American Pharoah. That was the best feeling I ever had in the first turn."
Baffert, standing alongside his wife Jill in the Belmont grandstand, was calm almost to the point of expressionless amid a surreal scene that included the Burger King mascot (hello, commercialism) and former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre in his box. Baffert, who had a heart attack in 2012, said he realized moments before the race he forgot to take his heart medication on Saturday. As it turned out, this was perhaps the least stressful experience for him of the entire Triple Crown.
The entire way around, Baffert was watching Espinoza's body language for any signs that he was trying to push the horse along. Instead, seeing Espinoza have him under a hard hold when the six-furlong fraction went up on the board - another reasonable time of 1:13.41 - it became clear that American Pharoah was going to have plenty left for the long stretch run. "I was prepared for somebody coming because I've gone through this so many times," Baffert said.
Frosted, the only horse behind American Pharoah doing any running, got as close as 1 1/2 lengths at the top of the stretch. But when Espinoza dropped the reins and signaled that it was time to go, American Pharoah opened up again, sailing unchallenged through the final 1/8 of a mile as Belmont Park reached a full roar.
After the wire, Espinoza stood up in the saddle and raised his whip, Baffert shared a long embrace with his wife and fans throughout the grandstand cried, hugged and proclaimed their excitement to be here on this day to see the end of a 37-year chase. "I think for everybody in the industry, it makes us feel really good about our sport," Baffert said. "We need something like that and watching him run today, everybody came to see something great and we witnessed it."
As Espinoza guided the champion back, he made a point of parading American Pharoah in front of the fans all the way down the grandstand, just to get one more look. And barring any sort of physical problem, it will not be the last opportunity to see him. Though Zayat has already sold American Pharoah's breeding rights, he has committed to race the horse at least through the end of this year. American Pharoah, whose only loss came in his career debut last summer, has now won seven of his eight career starts including romps in the Preakness and Belmont.
After all these years and all those disappointments while horse racing searched for its next entrant into the club of immortals, there is finally a living, breathing, running superstar who has shown no end to his talent. As American Pharoah showed Saturday, legends in horse racing aren't just for fuzzy television screens.
Espinoza had failed in his first Triple Crown bid in 2002 with War Emblem, failed a year ago with California Chrome. To the Victor go the spoils, finally. "The third time's the charm," Espinoza said.
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