American Pharoah led all the way to win the Belmont Stakes by 5½ lengths on Saturday, becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — one of the sporting world’s rarest feats.
LMONT, N.Y. – As American Pharoah came out of the far turn and squared his shoulders to let his rider, Victor Espinoza, stare down the long, withering stretch of Belmont Park, a sense of inevitability surged through this mammoth old grandstand as a capacity crowd strained on its tiptoes and let out a roar from deep in its soul. It was going to end, finally — this 37-year search for a great racehorse.
A battered old sport was looking for an immortal Thoroughbred, one worthy to stand alongside Sir Barton and Assault, War Admiral and Whirlaway, Count Fleet and Citation, a horse able to earn the title of a Triple Crown champion.
• The Belmont was American Pharoah’s eighth career start, making him the least-experienced horse to win the Triple Crown
• The nine Belmont Stakes winners before American Pharoah didn’t compete in the Preakness
• Trainer Bob Baffert improved to 2 for 10 in the Belmont (he also won with Point Given in 2001)
• Victor Espinoza, at 43 the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown, improved to 1 for 5 in the Belmont
• Of the 11 Triple Crown winners before American Pharoah, all but Count Fleet (1943) continued to compete after the Belmont — and each of those 10 horses won at least four more races.
There had only been 11 of them in history, and America had elected five presidents and lived through at least three economic downturns since Affirmed had last completed the feat in 1978. In the interim, 12 other very good racehorses had competed at this grand old track in Long Island with a chance to become the next great horse, only to fall short at the hands of a great rival, as Sunday Silence did to Easy Goer in 1988; or by a heartbreaking photo finish, as Real Quiet did in 1998; or to find the 1½-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes too much, as California Chrome did last year.
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But as American Pharoah bounded into the stretch amid a deafening roar in the 147th Belmont Stakes, the memories of the gritty Affirmed, the speedy Seattle Slew and that tremendous machine Secretariat were summoned, and rightfully so.
No one doubted American Pharoah was about to enter the history books. He was bouncing down the lane as if jumping from one trampoline to the other and no one was going to catch him. In the saddle, Espinoza felt a rush that twice previously he had only been able to dream about.
He was on California Chrome last year, and War Emblem in 2002, feeling those two runners staggering and feeling the collective gasp of more than 100,000 people disappointed once again. But not this time — Espinoza dropped the rein of his colt and let the muscled bay take him home.
There was no time to celebrate. Instead, the 43-year-old jockey from Mexico who as a boy was afraid of horses, tried to enjoy what was going on beneath him. American Pharoah’s strides seemed to get longer and longer, but Espinoza felt like he was riding a cloud.
“You don’t even feel him,” he said. “It feels like you are going in slow motion.”
Espinoza was confident entering the Kentucky Derby. American Pharoah, after all, had been voted North America’s 2-year-old champion of 2014. He was exuberant in Baltimore at the Preakness when the skies opened before the race and gave American Pharoah the sloppy racetrack he skims over like a Jet Ski.
But Espinoza was even more confident Saturday in the jockeys’ room at Belmont. When American Pharoah leaned back in the gate as the bell rang and the doors opened, and broke a step slow, Espinoza didn’t worry. In two jumps, American Pharoah had catapulted ahead of his seven rivals and glided into the first turn like a marble circling a roulette wheel.
There was more than a mile left to run, but Espinoza knew he was in for a special ride.
“He was right in the lead, where I wanted to be, in front of everybody,” he said. “I had the best feeling.”
For good reason — Materiality was giving chase, but whenever that colt got close, American Pharoah seemed to find another gear. He shook that rival off at the mile.
“Steady, steady,” Espinoza said to himself.
The horse from Dubai, Mubtaahij, took a run at him on the far turn before peeling back. Revving up outside American Pharoah was the late-running Frosted. He pounded down the stretch and was 2 lengths back with a quarter-mile to go, but then American Pharoah stretched his stride like he was elastic and snapped off to a 4-length lead. When Espinoza crossed the finish line 5½ lengths ahead of Frosted in the $1.5 million race, he finally allowed a smile to curl at the corner of his mouth.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who trains American Pharoah, briefly took his eyes off the Kentucky-bred colt during the stretch run.
“The crowd was just thundering and I was just enjoying the crowd and the noise and everything happening,” Baffert recalled. “What a feeling.”
In the record books, it will say American Pharoah covered the distance in 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds — the sixth-fastest in Belmont Stakes history — and paid his backers $3.50 for a $2 bet and fattened his earnings to more than $4.5 million for his owner, Ahmed Zayat.
American Pharoah has won his last seven races.
As Espinoza galloped American Pharoah almost the length of the grandstand and let thunderstruck fans, many with tears in their eyes, cheer an ethereal performance, he could barely catch his breath.
“Wow,” he told the outrider alongside him. “Wow. He’s just an amazing horse.”
Baffert got the job done on his record fourth Triple Crown try, having lost in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
“That little horse, he deserved it,” Baffert said of American Pharoah. “He’s the one that did it. We were basically just passengers.”
|American Pharoah beat 31 challengers in the three Triple Crown races.|
|Comparing the Triple Crown winners|
|A look at the 12 Triple Crown winners through and after their respective victories in the Belmont Stakes:|
|Horse (year)||Belmont win margin||Triple Crown win margin||Record through Belmont*||Record after Belmont**|
|Sir Barton (1919)||5 lengths||14 lengths||10/4-1-0||21/9-5-5|
|Gallant Fox (1930)||3 lengths||5¾ lengths||11/6-2-2||6/5-1-0|
|Omaha (1935)||1½ lengths||9 lengths||15/5-5-1||7/4-2-1|
|War Admiral (1937)||3 lengths||5 lengths||11/8-2-1||15/13-1-0|
|Whirlaway (1941)||2½ lengths||16 lengths||27/14-4-6||33/18-11-3|
|Count Fleet (1943)||25 lengths||36 lengths||21/16-4-1||Didn’t race again|
|Assault (1946)||3 lengths||11¼ lengths||15/7-2-1||27/11-4-6|
|Citation (1948)||8 lengths||17 lengths||20/18-2-0||25/14-8-2|
|Secretariat (1973)||31 lengths||36 lengths||15/12-1-1||6/4-2-0|
|Seattle Slew (1977)||4 lengths||7¼ lengths||9/9-0-0||8/5-2-0|
|Affirmed (1978)||Head||2 lengths||16/14-2-0||13/8-3-1|
|American Pharoah (2015)||5½ lengths||13½ lengths||8/7-0-0||TBD|
*Record through Belmont shows each horse’s starts/wins-2nds-3rds through the Belmont Stakes. ** Record after Belmont shows each horse’s starts/wins-2nds-3rds in races after the Belmont Stakes