ELMONT – Sometimes it’s worth the wait.
In a return to the glory days of racing on a beautiful afternoon on Long Island, American Pharoah erased the 37-year Triple Crown drought by capturing the Belmont Stakes for Zayat Stables and trainer Bob Baffert at Belmont Park.
The roar of the raucous crowd could be heard all the way across the country as American Pharoah joined the ranks of racing immortality early Saturday evening.
The champion etched his name into history in front of an estimated 90,000 racing fans and a national television audience, becoming the 12th horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes during his 3-year-old year.
The old grandstand shook with fervor as the son of Pioneerof the Nile thundered down the lane eluding the ghost of failed Triple Crown attempts, a number that reached 13 last year when California Chrome finished fourth after winning the first two legs.
Baffert secured the elusive Triple Crown on his fourth attempt, numbing the pain from his three near misses in 1997, 1998 and 2002 on the track known as Big Sandy. The win was the icing on the Hall-of-Fame trainer’s career, securing the last missing piece.
Back in the paddock after the race, trainer Dale Romans, whose colt Keen Ice finished third, was in awe of American Pharoah and the training job that Baffert did with him.
“He’s the best horse; he deserves to have his name along with great horses like Affirmed, Secretariat and Citation,” Romans said. “It’s great for the sport. Bob is a very kind person and he deserved to go down in history as a Triple Crown-winning trainer. To be here for the fourth time is phenomenal enough.”
With five competitors returning from the Kentucky Derby having skipped the Preakness in Baltimore, American Pharoah became the first horse in the modern era to repel fresh horses with five weeks rest at the Belmont. He also is the first Triple Crown winner to win the Belmont Stakes without a prior race on the track in his juvenile or 3-year-old season.
Jockey Victor Espinoza also ended a personal Triple Crown skid. He lost both of his prior attempts at glory on War Emblem and California Chrome.
Espinoza made history by riding the bay colt perfectly over the three classic races, all with different scenarios placed before him. He tamed an outside post position in the Derby, the muddy track and rail post at the Preakness and the biggest obstacle in the Belmont, the mile-and-a-half distance.
Great horses are able to outrun their pedigree and American Pharoah, the colt with the misspelled name, certainly accomplished that in acing the Test of a Champion, conquering the 12 furlongs in a time worthy of his place in history.
He completed the 1½ miles in 2:26.65, a time better than nine of the previous 11 Triple Crown winners. Only Secretariat’s record time of 2:24 in 1973 was faster, as Sir Barton’s clinching race in 1919 was run at 1 3/8 miles.
After posting moderate fractions and without Materiality pressing him in the early going, American Pharoah set the stage for his run down the lane to history. Frosted, the second choice on the morning line, made a run at him just after the quarter pole, but was turned back by Espinoza and Pharoah and had to settle for second.
Jockey Joel Rosario did his best to challenge the Triple Crown winner, but to no avail.
“I tried to follow American Pharoah the whole way, but when I turned for home and tried to get to him, he just took off again,” Rosario said. “It was exciting to see a Triple Crown winner, and for me to be in second place it was even better. The roar of the crowd was amazing, it was beautiful. He is a super horse.”
Mubtaahij, the fourth-place finisher, got close to American Pharoah after a pedestrian mile that went 1:37.99, but Irad Ortiz, Jr., like Rosario, could only sing Pharoah’s praises.
“By the three-eighths pole, he was looking around and was just waiting for Victor to ask him to go,” Ortiz Jr. said. “When Victor asked him he just took off and he did it.”
Gary Stevens, a three-time Belmont Stakes winning jockey, also saluted the winner.
“He ran a hell of a race. The race was over in the third jump from the gate,” said Stevens, who lost his only attempt at a Triple Crown try in 1997 aboard Silver Charm for Baffert. “It’s great to come back to a screaming crowd in a happy way instead of booing. It’s a pretty cool moment.”
The Zayats have said they will continue to race American Pharoah, as long as he’s healthy, through the end of the year. That’s the best thing that could happen after today’s big victory.
To see the Triple Crown champ at Saratoga this summer (Travers, please) and in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland would go a long way in keeping the momentum moving forward.
The effect that the Triple Crown triumph will have on thoroughbred racing is yet to be seen. Some pundits think that a Triple Crown will return racing to the days of old when fans flocked in great numbers to the track to see the superstars of the game.
That outcome is less likely in a society today that requires instant gratification. And while the sports world’s attention was affixed upon Belmont Park Saturday afternoon, most will say that was a pretty cool moment and move on.
For those who love the game, though, it was the moment they have been awaiting for 37 years. The fact that the sun was shining down on racing for one glorious afternoon at Belmont Park was enough.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.