ELMONT, N.Y.—After 37 years, racing has a new story line. Blessedly. Thankfully.
The emotion was very real. The cheering, the sustained din of 90,000 fans at Belmont Park for American Pharoah as he crossed the finish line as the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday was in sharp contrast to the way all the air had seemed to leave the place so many times in the last 19 years.
It was euphoric. It was defiant. It was cathartic.
American Pharoah was the 14th horse since 1978 to come to New York with a shot at the Triple Crown. The 13 who came before him had, in a variety of ways, all come up short. American Pharoah did not. He delivered a dominant performance, a masterpiece of pace and stamina. He won the Belmont by 5½ lengths in 2:26.65, the fastest time since 2001.
And if they had to circle the track twice, he would still have won.
Jockey Victor Espinoza, who has struggled at enormous Belmont Park in the past, and who had failed to win the Triple Crown atop California Chrome last year, gave the colt a masterful ride, keeping him out of trouble and taking him to the lead out of the gate and into the first turn—while making sure to keep American Pharoah under control.
The early fractions of the race were very soft: 48.83, 1:13.41, 1:37.99. As the field moved down the backstretch, it was clear that the race was setting up perfectly for Pharoah, who had led at every call. The smooth-moving bay would have no excuses.
He wouldn’t need them. Coming out of the turn for home, there was a moment when Frosted came to American Pharoah’s outside flank and appeared poised to challenge for the lead. For the first time in the race, there was reason for doubt. Was the mile and a half of the Belmont too far? Was the workload of four races in eight weeks too much? Was racing about to deliver yet another crushing disappointment?
Hardly. American Pharoah galloped away from Frosted with minimal urging, his gorgeous stride folding the ground beneath him and carrying him to the finish. Out of danger and into history.
The long homestretch at Belmont Park, which has been the undoing of so many Triple Crown dreams, was on this occasion the site of a coronation. The roar from the grandstand grew and grew and grew into one, long deafening wall of sound.
[daily_cut]It’s not like we hadn’t seen this coming. Indeed, that may be precisely why the moment was freighted with so much emotion. For all the disappointments of the last 19 years, a sense of optimism had been building around American Pharoah ever since he splashed to an easy seven-length victory over a sloppy track in the Preakness at Pimlico on May 16. It started last Monday, when two potential Belmont contenders pulled out of the race, reducing the field to eight, the smallest since 2007. The defections left Pharoah as the only early speed in the race, a factor that would allow him to control the pace—and many cited this as the reason the Belmont was his to lose.
Cautiously, people began to describe the race as a potential walkover. In racetrack parlance, a walkover is a race with only one starter. A sure thing, in other words. One insider, in a moment of what passes for wild confidence at the track, said at the post-position draw on Wednesday, “I would be surprised if he didn’t win.”
Even Bob Baffert, American Pharoah’s trainer, seemed cautiously optimistic. If any Belmont participant had reason to be jaded, it was Baffert. This was the fourth time he had come to New York with a chance to win the Triple Crown. He came up a half length short with Silver Charm in 1997, a nose short with Real Quiet in ’98 and, er, way, way short with War Emblem in 2002. No trainer in history has experienced more Triple Crown highs and lows than the silver-haired Baffert.
He had a right to doubt, but he never did.
“We know we’re [up] against it,” he said on Wednesday before the race. “This is a very tough race with a lot of very nice horses in it. ... I never thought I’d be back here again in this position, but the way he won his races, and then the Preakness, he was so dominating that day. When he’s right, he likes to dominate. He’s that kind of horse. Hopefully, he can bring it one more time.”
It was remarkable, really, and heartening, this readiness for something great to happen. More so because it flew in the face of nearly four decades of crushing experience. No horse had swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978. And this year’s crop of 3-year-olds was widely acknowledged to be one of the best, and deepest, in recent memory. Yet there was NBC, less than an hour before the race, playing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
And there was the crowd during the post parade singing an impromptu chorus from “Seven Nation Army.” How could this year possibly be any different? Had we been watching greatness all along and not realized it?
Turns out we had.
In the years to come, there will surely be those who say that American Pharoah was not in the class of history’s truly great Triple Crown winners: Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew. Don’t listen to them. The Triple Crown is so hard to win that the achievement itself is validation of greatness. Any horse who can do it is deserving of all the accolades that come his way.
So believe in the greatness of American Pharoah and his electrifying performance in the Belmont. He was superb, and in the years to come we will say that we knew it all along. We didn’t of course. But we wanted to believe—and that was the best part of all. Our belief was confirmed on Saturday.