American Pharoah wins Triple Crown, breaking 37-year drought

Victor Espinoza reacts after crossing the finish line with American Pharoah (5) to win the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. American Pharoah is the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed won it in 1978. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Victor Espinoza reacts after crossing the finish line with American Pharoah (5) to win the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. American Pharoah is the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed won it in 1978. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun) ASSOCIATED PRESS

ELMONT, N.Y. — The reality hit in waves at Belmont Park on Saturday evening. It crashed over all those who couldn't let themselves believe it until it was plain before their eyes in all of its indisputable glory.

It struck jockey Victor Espinoza going around the first sweeping turn of the 147th Belmont Stakes. It ran up his hands and into his heart as he took in every positive signal his mount was giving off.

It teased trainer Bob Baffert in the paddock, and then smacked him full force at the head of the stretch of the 11/2-mile odyssey. He had forgotten to take his heart medication earlier in the day, but the pounding in his chest was providing a complementary soundtrack to the wall of noise building from the crowd of 90,000.

In the final eighth of a mile of the final leg of the Triple Crown, American Pharoah finally had generations of Thoroughbred racing fans convinced. The doors to transcendent greatness could be pried open after 37 years of being sealed. The dream outcome some bitterly said would never materialize again was galloping in fluid beauty down the track, ears pricked to sky, 51/2 lengths in front of the nearest challenger.

The racing world has its 12th wonder. American Pharoah, the bay son of Pioneerof the Nile who has barely put a foot wrong since birth, became the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 — and just the 12th all time — to sweep the American classics known at the Triple Crown. He led every step of the way.

What a drought it had been. Racing fans who thought they were spoiled with Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed all winning the Triple Crown within a handful of years have found themselves, their children and their children's offspring questioning whether another Thoroughbred had the ability needed to prevail over the five-week test that is Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

Since 1978, 13 other horses had won the first two legs and then fell short at the Belmont. And if Hall of Famers such as Spectacular Bid, Alysheba and Sunday Silence couldn't do it, what chance did another freakishly fast wunderkind have against 37 years of dashed hopes?

American Pharoah was different. That's what his owner/breeder, Zayat Stables, had been told since the first time he had a saddle put on him. What other good horses had to work to do, the son of Pioneerof the Nile did with ease that was condescending. His stride was bigger, more fluid. His constitution heartier, his temperament unfazed.

And so, in what was supposed to be the toughest test of his life, American Pharoah turned it all into a mockery. He never let his seven rivals, including runner-up Frosted, seriously challenge him for more than a couple of steps.

"Thirty seven years ... that little horse deserved it," said Baffert, who three times prior had trained horses to this point in Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) — only to get his now surgery-repaired heart broken.

"He had what it takes," Baffert said. "Not only do you have to be a good horse, but you have to be able to take the constant, the turnaround. And ... I've never in my life had a horse that you could ship this many times and still, he's amazing.

"I wasn't really as nervous because I felt I had the horse. I told Victor in the paddock 'Dude, he is ready. It's probably going to take a few days to sink in. This is going to be a moment we'll never forget."

In hindsight, American Pharoah was merely doing what he has done his entire eight-race career: eliminate any debate over who the best of his generation is.

He is the reigning juvenile champion, having won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and Grade I FrontRunner Stakes last September after somehow finishing fifth in his career debut. While injury knocked him out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last October and sidelined him until March, he never lost form, reeling off a 61/4-length triumph during his seasonal debut in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park March 14.

He has won his last seven starts, including six Grade Is over six different tracks, while prevailing by a combined 353/4 lengths. He did that without yielding to any perceived challenge, winning over rain-soaked tracks at Oaklawn and Pimlico, prevailing from the rail as well as the outside, running foes off their feet or rating and then delivering a wide rally as he did in the Derby.

"I have been saying he's a very good horse, he could be special, but in order to win the Triple Crown, you have to define greatness," owner Ahmed Zayat said. "He does everything so easy. We wanted this for the sport. He looked unbelievable.

"I told my wife in the post parade, get ready to be the owner of the 12th Triple Crown winner."

American Pharoah being a 3-to-5 betting favorite showed that the betting public had faith, but no one is really ever prepared for the improbable to play out.

Breaking out of post No. 5, American Pharoah got away in good order and was angled toward the inside in front of his challengers as the field raced to the first turn with Frosted to his outside and Mubtaahij just behind him on the rail.

Materiality ranged up to sit second as they settled down the massive backstretch, but American Pharoah was in command on the front end. He coasted through fractions of 24.06 and 48.83 seconds on an easy rein from Espinoza, and he had the crowd ready to come off the rails as he held a two-length edge coming off the final turn.

"I'm telling you on the first turn, that was the best feeling ever," said Espinoza, who had suffered two failed Triple Crown attempts prior as the jockey for War Emblem and California Chrome (2014). "Warming up, he was all class. I grabbed the reins and he just took off.

"It's just an amazing feeling that you have when it's like 20 yards out of the wire and you're three or four lengths in front. I was just ... having fun."

As the daylight between American Pharoah and Frosted grew in the stretch, the cavernous track shook with the screams only realized hopes can produce.

The final time of 2:26.65 was the sixth-fastest winning Belmont time in history. Frosted and Keen Ice finished second and third behind a new legend.

"I think what the Triple Crown is about is we get to share greatness with everybody," Baffert said. "Everybody got to see it."

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