HOW DID YOU IMAGINE A TRIPLE CROWN WOULD FEEL? WITH A BLAZING BELMONT, AMERICAN PHAROAH MADE THE END OF A 37-YEAR DROUGHT EVEN SWEETER THAN WE HOPED
This is an article from the June 15, 2015 issue
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. The moment unfolded as if from another time, asking a sport to keep hanging on to faith that had been lost in too many disappointments, too many euphoric buildups that had crashed in failure and sent its fans sulking into the darkness, unfulfilled. Horse racing was stuck on the same, yellowed page: So many times the Triple Crown had seemed at hand and so many times cruel reality had dropped a hammer at old Belmont Park, leaving a generation and more with no legend of its own to pass along, just musty recollections that grew more distant by the year.
It was a bay colt named American Pharoah who finally set them free. At 6:52 last Saturday night he won the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes and became the 12th horse to sweep racing's Triple Crown (winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in the same year), mercifully ending the drought that had held racing hostage since 1978, when Affirmed held off Alydar in the stretch at Belmont to claim the third Triple Crown of the decade. Twelve horses had since run to victory in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to fail in the Belmont. (A 13th, I'll Have Another, won the first two legs in 2012 but was scratched from the Belmont with an injury.) Twelve horses had lost in every imaginable way and many in the sport had begun to whisper that perhaps there would never be another Triple Crown.
All of that ended in dominance. American Pharoah led for every step of the Belmont's brutal 1½ miles, a distance that is rarely run in American horse racing, that none of the eight starters are likely to race again in their lifetimes and that has so often been the undoing of Triple Crown hopefuls. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who had previously lost Triple Crown attempts in 2002 (War Emblem) and in '14 (California Chrome), scarcely asked Pharoah to move until he reached the top of the homestretch, when he surrendered the reins to the colt and twice struck him righthanded with his whip. Pharoah rolled away, each of his graceful strides a scream of atonement for the past failures that had been shared and mourned by the entire sport—here for Spectacular Bid (1979) and his overmatched jockey and the safety pin that the colt stepped on the morning of the race; here for Real Quiet ('98) and his heartbreaking, by-a-nose loss to Victory Gallop; here for Smarty Jones (2004), passed in the deep stretch by Birdstone. With every stride the Belmont grandstand quaked, engulfed by a primal roar of exorcism, desperation given sound.
Pharoah drew away as 90,000 fans leaned forward, bearing witness. His final quarter-mile was the second fastest of the race's six. He finished 5½ lengths in front of Frosted. As he crossed under the wire Espinoza stood in the irons and raised his whip to the sky.
In a second-floor box stood white-haired trainer Bob Baffert, 62, who had three times seen his horses denied racing's greatest prize in the Belmont (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in '98 and War Emblem in 2002). Behind him was his 21-year-old daughter, Savannah—whom Baffert held in his arms 17 years earlier when Real Quiet had been beaten at the line—a reminder of time gone by and opportunities painfully lost. He watched last Saturday's Belmont nearly stonefaced but shot his right fist into the air at the finish before embracing his wife, Jill. "That's it," Baffert said. Jill threw her arms around her husband's shoulders, began to cry and said, "You did it." They held each other in a long embrace, sharing the moment in a way they could with nobody else.
Rival trainer Todd Pletcher, whose Materiality chased Pharoah early before finishing eighth, fought through the crowd to congratulate Baffert. "That horse is too good," he said, as he walked away. Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Frosted, also pushed his way toward Baffert. "I wanted to win the race," said McLaughlin. "But in the last eighth of a mile, my whole family and I were cheering for American Pharoah."
Baffert made his way along a catwalk toward the winner's circle and was met by Ahmed Zayat, the controversial and flamboyant Egyptian expatriate who owns American Pharoah. Zayat screamed over the din to get Baffert's attention. When Baffert stopped, Zayat threw his arms around the trainer's neck and began weeping as a sponsor's cap fell sideways on his balding head. "We all wanted this," Zayat said later. "We all wanted this for the sport." (A day after the Belmont, Zayat said that Pharoah, whose breeding rights he previously had sold for a price that has been estimated by industry insiders at between $6 million and $14 million—but which could rise as high as $30 million as a result of his Triple Crown victory—will run in more races this year if he remains healthy, but almost certainly not beyond 2015.)
Throughout the giant grandstand, insiders and spectators alike were moved by an achievement that had seemed unattainable. Chris McCarron, 60, a retired Hall of Fame jockey who rode in dozens of Triple Crown races and won six, was among them. "This is the most exciting thing I've ever seen in my life," he said afterward. "What a horse. What an incredible horse."
Trainer Nick Zito, whose Frammento finished fifth, said, "You just saw Seattle Slew," a reference to the revered 1977 Triple Crown winner, who had also won the Belmont from on the lead.
Graham Motion, an English trainer with a passion for American racing who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom, said, "He's such an amazing horse, with a beautiful way of moving. But more than anything, I'm so happy for the sport, because now it's been done. And maybe now there won't be so much talk about changing the Triple Crown because it hasn't been done in so long."
THERE HAD been signs that Pharoah was ready in the long three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont, during which horses and humans are incessantly prodded until the entire enterprise can begin to feel like drudgery. On a cool Kentucky morning, 10 days after the Preakness and 11 days before the Belmont, Baffert came to Churchill Downs to watch Pharoah run the first of two serious pre-Belmont workouts. Baffert had known since last fall that Pharoah might be the horse to end the Triple Crown drought. Even after the colt's disastrous first start at Del Mar in California last August (he finished fifth), Baffert marveled at Pharoah's remarkable running action, at the acute shoulder angle that allows him to extend his front legs further than most horses, and at the effortless manner in which he pulls his hind legs beneath him before explosively bounding forward. It is a stride that is efficient and powerful at the same time, light and thunderous. "We've had a lot of good horses," Baffert says. "I've never had one that moves like this. Never." After Pharoah's stunningly easy win in the April 11 Arkansas Derby, Baffert and his wife together went on a crash diet, getting food delivered to their home because, says Bob, "It was starting to look like we were going to be on television a lot."
Baffert was excited for this workout. He had flown to Louisville late on May 25, and he texted me at 5:45 the next morning: "I'm in the finish line suites. Come on up." Baffert had slept only a couple of hours. Pharoah had been the best 2-year-old in the country last fall but had been scratched from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with bone bruise. He had also suffered a bruised foot in February of 2015, necessitating the use of a plate in the shoe on his left front hoof. "Bob did an incredible job training this horse," Pletcher says. "The injury, the time off, and then to run all these races in a short time. Very impressive."
Under gray clouds yielding to warm sunshine, Martin Garcia guided Pharoah onto the Churchill surface. Briefly, the colt was the only horse on the freshly harrowed track, an oval of brown corduroy lines. Baffert held a walkie-talkie in his right hand; another was clipped to Garcia's chest. Garcia is Baffert's No. 1 jockey, but because Baffert esteems the rider for his skill at estimating pace and effort, Garcia also works all of Baffert's best horses in morning training. (As to why Garcia did not ride Pharoah to the Triple Crown, there is a story there, as well. Keep reading.)
Baffert's walkie-talkie crackled with Garcia's voice. "Chingon!" Garcia said, enthusiastically. "Super chingon." Chingon (CHEEN-yon) is Spanish slang for a variety of things, all of them exemplary: awesome, cool, strong, smart, tough. It is the type of word that would have been used to describe Michael Jordan in his prime, or Lawrence Taylor in his.
Baffert laughed. "Chingon is good," he said. "Chingon is really good."
American Pharoah effortlessly circled the track that morning, galloping as fast as many horses run in competition. Baffert conducted a brief press conference in the shadow of his barn while Garcia took a shower, and then both men raced to the airport for a flight back to California. In the middle of the afternoon, Baffert sent me another text: "Super chingon. F------awesome."
Chignon became the operative word for American Pharoah in the Baffert barn. Six days after Garcia first said it, American Pharoah again worked flawlessly at Churchill Downs. Two days after that, on the Wednesday before the Belmont, Baffert, Zayat and Espinoza were the center of attention during the draw for post positions in New York City. As Baffert hustled between interviews, he pulled me aside and whispered into my ear: "Still super chingon, man. Still good."
On the Friday morning before the Belmont, American Pharoah was sent out for his customary—and his last—morning workout under regular exercise rider Georgie Alvarez. After the brief gallop, Alvarez walked Pharoah through a gap in the fence near the first turn and headed to his right, toward Barn 1, the colt's temporary home in New York. Baffert watched from nearby, standing between Barn 7, where Silver Charm and Real Quiet had been stabled, and Barn 8, where War Emblem had lived.
Baffert hustled to catch up to his horse. Alvarez looked down from American Pharoah. "Chingon, patron," said Alvarez, addressing Baffert with the Spanish word for "boss." "So chingon." There was concern among track insiders that Baffert had brought Pharoah to New York too late for the colt to have a chance to adapt well to Belmont's unique racing surface. "He loves this track," Alvarez said to Baffert. "He gets over it so nice."
Pharoah's adaptability is not a shock. He lived on three different Kentucky farms in the first year of his life, and then was broken at a training center in Florida. He ran his first two races for Baffert at Del Mar, his third at Santa Anita and his two Kentucky Derby preps in Arkansas. He is known around Baffert's barn for possessing the sweet demeanor of a golden retriever—a valuable quality when he's being shipped around the country frequently, and also when facing the onslaught of cameras that go with being a Triple Crown contender. "This horse can handle anything," Alvarez says. "He's too good."
THE INTENSE media scrutiny of the Triple Crown extracted its pound of flesh from some of the participants. Zayat, who first made the money that enabled him to dive into the racing game by selling his Egyptian beer company for about $280 million, has endured several legal entanglements and railed tempestuously against any in the press who reported on them. "I am emotional," he said two days before the Belmont. "I am competitive. You have to understand this about me."
Zayat also struck a sponsorship deal with Monster Energy drinks that made the company a significant presence on Espinoza's silks and American Pharoah's tack; Baffert likewise made a deal to allow a man in a Burger King costume to stand in his box during the race. (Baffert told me after the Preakness that he had been offered $150,000 to let the Burger King mascot near him for that race and turned it down; he said he was paid $200,000 for the Belmont and will donate the money to charity.)
None of this, of course, had any effect on Pharoah. As the horses loaded into the starting gate on Saturday, I turned from a viewing spot on the catwalk that would later be the site of bedlam. I made eye contact with Baffert and he mouthed the word: "Chingon." Clearly: All systems go.
Espinoza, 43, was on Pharoah almost by accident. Garcia rode the colt in his debut, on Aug. 9 at Del Mar. Before the race Pharoah blew up in the paddock, sweating profusely and panicking in front of a bustling crowd. He finished a well-beaten fifth. Baffert, having expected great things, was stunned. For Pharoah's next race, also at Del Mar 25 days later, Baffert changed riders (Garcia was unavailable), and decided to outfit Pharoah with puffy earplugs.
Baffert's first choice to replace Garcia had been Gary Stevens, but Stevens had undergone recent knee replacement surgery and wasn't ready to resume riding. Baffert tried Rafael Bejarano, but he was unavailable. Baffert tried Mike Smith. Also unavailable. Meanwhile, jockey agent Brian Beach had contacted Baffert and told him that Espinoza was free. Baffert had experienced success in the Triple Crown series with Espinoza before, most notably with War Emblem in 2002. "Victor is pretty calm out there," said Baffert. "I figured maybe he would be good for the horse."
Espinoza won that race by 4¾ lengths and has never lost on Pharoah in seven starts. Baffert's plan in the Belmont was simple: "I'm going to tell Victor to send him," Baffert said two days before the race. "Let him gallop away." That is exactly what Espinoza did. Pharoah hesitated slightly when the starting gate opened, but then Espinoza, much as he had in the colt's wire-to-wire Preakness victory, threw his hands forward and shot Pharoah into the lead. "So much power," said Espinoza, "so much energy."
When the field swung into the first turn, Pharoah was comfortably in front, and completed the first quarter-mile in 24.06 seconds, a soft pace that ensured he would not tire quickly. "I think, in that first turn," said Espinoza, "that was the happiest I've ever been in my life."
A half-mile went in 48.83 seconds and three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.41 seconds. "Ball game," said McCarron. "Victor was just galloping."
Espinoza sat ice cold into the sweeping final turn. Finally, at the top of the stretch, he gave Pharoah his head and the colt exploded. He ran his six quarter-miles in 24.06, 24.77, 24.58, 24.58 again, 24.34 and 24.32. His winning time of 2:26.65 was the fastest in the race since Point Given (also trained by Baffert) in 2001, and the second-fastest Belmont for a Triple Crown winner (behind Secretariat's untouchable 2:24). A trophy that had for so long been elusive was finally taken down with consummate ease.
AFTER GALLOPING around the turn, Espinoza cantered American Pharoah back toward the winner's circle and then all the way to the head of the stretch, the entire length of the grandstand, to a delirious reception. The colt was now in the company of greatness. The Triple Crown is among the most exclusive clubs in any sport. The achievement defines those who achieve it. Some wonder if a Triple Crown will restore racing to its bygone splendor. It will not. But Saturday was not about that. It was about a curse ended and greatness proved. Twenty minutes after the race Belmont remained nearly full, spectators in thrall, refusing to leave. "Look at that," said former New York jockey Richard Migliore, witness to nearly all of the past failures of the last 37 years. "People still standing. Look at them."
It was yet another June evening at Belmont Park, yet another horse running for the Triple Crown, yet another reach at history. Only this time was so different, a prayer answered in the gloaming. This time the horse was right. Now the wait is done.