Throughout the spring, beginning in California the week before the Kentucky Derby, SI’s Tim Layden had a front-row seat for American Pharoah’s pursuit of horse racing’s Triple Crown. From Louisville to Baltimore to New York, Layden was at the barns in the early mornings and at the track in the afternoons. He spoke to trainers and owners, jockeys and exercise riders, horsemen and business men. In his columns, he told not only the story of the colt, but also of the people around him, and in the doing, he put American Pharoah’s achievement into indelible, and unforgettable, perspective.
It was a little before midnight when I walked out of Belmont Park last Saturday night after American Pharoah’s Triple Crown-clinching win in the Belmont Stakes. Maybe it was a little after midnight. I know it was 11:57 when I walked out of the press box, down the long-L-shaped hallway and into what might be the second-oldest elevator in any sports venue in the U.S. So I’m guessing about the exact time, to some extent. Out of the elevator and into the paddock, past the statue of Secretariat and stall 5, where a little more than five hours earlier trainer Bob Baffert had placed the saddle on American Pharoah. It had been a long day. But a good day. One of the best. Here’s how it went.
Sports Illustrated deputy picture editor Erick Rasco describes the story behind the shot of American Pharoah that made the cover of the June 9, 2015 edition of the magazine.
And so in the long shadows of an early evening in the 37th June since the last, the last, the last—and my god, the last—at a venerable place where hope and desperation had so often melted into painful defeat, history finally let go.
A racehorse has again won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and again the broader world beyond its tidy borders will put aside other avocations for a few minutes, three weeks from now on the first Saturday in June, and watch to see if, at long last, one of the most famous droughts in sports will be brought to a merciful end.
Together, yet apart, Baffert and Zayat watched as American Pharoah, a bay colt with a truncated tail, a misspelled name and one of the sweetest strides on four equine legs, caught Firing Line beneath the lengthening shadows of Churchill Downs’s twin spires, and then beat down his stubborn rival in a withering drive to the wire to win by a single length.
Everybody was searching for signs that American Pharoah could win the Belmont Stakes and end racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought. But there were no clues, and nobody knew.
American Pharoah attempted the Triple Crown in a sport where the story is as much about the horse as it is about its trainers and owners.
He was one of the most familiar faces on the most successful franchise in the NFL. But in horse racing, says Vince Wilfork, “I’m like a little kid.”
Baffert, who had seen glimpses of the colt’s immense talent and classic stride in training, decided to make changes to both the horse’s routine and equipment. One of the most significant changes was to outfit American Pharoah with earplugs.