Thirteen years ago, jockey Victor Espinoza could do nothing as the horse he straddled, War Emblem, stumbled at the start of the Belmont Stakes, taking with him hope of the first Triple Crown since Affirmed won it in 1978.
Then it was 2014, and Espinoza sat atop California Chrome, only to have another attempt at the achievement snuffed out by the fresh legs of Tonalist, who had not run either of the first two races that make up the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
Now it was 2015, and the 43-year-old jockey was guiding American Pharoah, another winner of the Derby and the Preakness, down the stretch — Espinoza hoped to a coronation.
In the lengthening shadows of Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park, less than 20 miles from New York City, Espinoza rode American Pharoah to a wire-to-wire win to complete the first Triple Crown in nearly four decades and only the 12th in history.
As the horse with the misspelled name distanced himself from the field in the final furlongs and it became apparent that he would make history, the noise from the crowd of 90,000 became a roar. When Pharoah crossed the finish line of the 1 ½-mile race at 2:26.65, Espinoza raised his right arm to the sky in triumph. The long-awaited moment had finally arrived.
In the hulking grandstand where fans have watched dozens of Triple Crown dreams die, Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert watched as theirs came true. Their horse galloped to a 5½ length victory, the third-largest margin of victory in a Triple Crown-winning race. The two embraced family members as the celebration erupted around them.
“A very special horse,” Baffert said, straining to be heard over the din. “I’m very emotional.” Like Espinoza, Baffert had done a lot of waiting over the years. His horses had come up short three times in Triple Crown bids. Now his patience had been validated.
A few minutes later, as the sun began to set, Zayat stood in the winner’s circle surrounded by Baffert, Espinoza, family members, and high-level racing officials to accept both the Belmont trophy and the Triple Crown trophy.
As he raised the August Belmont Memorial Cup to the sky amid raucous cheering, Zayat shouted, “New Yorkers, all racing fans, this is for you!” Zayat then hoisted the Triple Crown trophy, saying over the noise, “I’m so thrilled, honored, privileged, humbled, excited.”
Espinoza stood off to the side, holding an energy drink. He removed the lid of the Cup and jokingly motioned dumping the liquid into the trophy, a wide smile spread across his face. Baffert saw this and laughed.
Fans who had filed onto the grounds hours earlier had gotten their money’s worth — and then some. While Pharoah was no lock, in part due to the Belmont’s longer length in comparison to the Derby and Preakness, the horse was a heavy favorite.
Those in attendance sensed that they could be witnessing history that evening. Tom and Maria Ascher, Greg Nichols, and Scott Shechtman had driven from New York City for the day. “There was a buzz of expectation,” Nichols, an Australian racing executive who was formerly the director of the British Horseracing Board, said as the group waited in the long line of cars departing the racetrack Saturday night. “It was electric before the race.”
After weeks of anticipation, American Pharoah’s Triple Crown came down to a race that took just over two minutes. Unlike in Baltimore three weeks before at the Preakness, where the horse slogged to victory on a muddy track amid torrential rain, the skies were clear and the sun was shining brightly on Saturday afternoon in Elmont, New York, home of Belmont Park.
When the starting gates opened, American Pharoah raced to an early lead and never looked back. “He was right … where I wanted to be, in front of everybody,” Espinoza said afterward. “I had the best feeling.”
In the stands, Nichols stood cheering with the rest of the crowd as Pharoah galloped to history. Nichols has attended nearly every major horse race worldwide but said this one wasn’t like the others. “It was the most animated I’ve seen an American race course. It was a very moving experience,” he said afterward. “The crowd realized the enormity of what had just happened.”
“Nobody was sitting down,” recalled Tom Ascher, the CEO of Longitude, a company that provides systems to calculate racing odds. “I don’t think you can appreciate how loud it got when people realized [American Pharoah] would win.”
“It’s something I’ll always remember,” said Shechtman, the director of Longitude, who wasn’t yet born when the Triple Crown was last won, in 1978.
Many have suggested that a Triple Crown will vault horse racing back into the mainstream sports conversation and improve attendance after a recent decline in interest. Tom Ascher was cautiously optimistic. “The halo may slowly dissipate, but I’d like to think there still will be a warm memory of this,” he said. “I don’t see how today can be viewed as anything other than a terrific positive.”
Nichols suggested that improvements in the fan experience and other elements of racing would do more to help the sport than one horse’s magical spring.
Belmont Park had in fact limited crowds to 90,000 for Saturday’s race to reduce congestion that had sent many fans home less than satisfied last year. But as darkness began to fall more than an hour after the race had concluded, a long line of vehicles still waited to exit the parking lot.
Meanwhile, American Pharoah was back in the stables, recovering from the race of his life.
Years ago, as a boy growing up on a goat farm in Mexico, Espinoza had dreamed about becoming a star jockey in America. At the track where legends had raced, a track of celebration and heartbreak, he and the horse he rode were finally champions.
Photos: Al Bello/Getty Images (race), Rob Carr/Getty Images (celebration)