Kentucky Derby

John Clay: A day to rejoice for fans of horse racing

ELMONT, N.Y. — The roar from the crowd came not so much as it was happening but after it was over.

Down on the track, as American Pharoah hit the finish line, the sound from the Belmont Park grandstand just washed over you, like 37 years of disappointment and frustration and emptiness were all cleansed in one memorable moment.

In fact, the roar sounded not so much like cheering as rejoicing, the sound of an entire sport rejoicing.

American Pharoah got it done, winning the 147th Belmont Stakes to become Thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, the first since Affirmed in 1978, ending a drought that had extended nearly four decades.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner did it in dominating fashion, as well, leading wire-to-wire, finishing 51/2 lengths ahead of runner-up Frosted with Keen Ice 2 lengths farther back in third before a sold-out crowd.

Bottom line: Even for what has become the most difficult accomplishment in all of sports, American Pharoah was just too good to fail.

Never mind the fresh-legged challengers that had trumped the Triple Crown candidates of the recent past. Never mind the improbable long shots who had so often found a way to win this unusual mile-and-a-half test. Never mind Pharoah's comparatively slow times in the Derby and Preakness which had caused even Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery to tell Yahoo Sports that her hopes were high, but her skepticism was real.

The skeptics didn't matter because the only thing that mattered was the talent of the horse.

Stat of the day: Seven of the now last eight Triple Crown winners were also 2-year-old champions. American Pharoah was a 2-year-old champion. And through the first five months of competition among what appears to be a deep and talented 3-year-old crop, Pharoah had proven to be much the best.

"He might be the best horse I've ever seen," said veteran Churchill Downs clocker Gary Young, a 35-year veteran of the business, in a comment made six weeks ago that resonates even more now.

There were some anxious moments leading up to the 6:50 post time Saturday, of course. How could there not be? Standing outside the test barn less than an hour before the race, trainer Bob Baffert asked his 10-year-old son, Bode, if he was more nervous than the Kentucky Derby.

"Ten times," said Bode. "Because it's really, really far."

Dressed in a blue jacket and red tie, Baffert was calm and collected, chatting with reporters, kidding his three older sons — Canyon, Forest and Taylor — and voicing how happy he was daughter Savannah made the New York trip. Her only problem was navigating the tunnel from the stable area up to the paddock in her black heels.

There in that packed paddock, Baffert liked what he saw. Keyed up at Churchill Downs before the Derby, American Pharoah glistened with eagerness under the Belmont Park trees.

"Dude, he's ready," Baffert told jockey Victor Espinoza, who made a special point of wading through the crowd to hug owner Ahmed Zayat's wife, Joanne, for good luck.

And then off they went into history.

"I was most excited in the first turn when I was in the lead like I wanted," said Espinoza, who could tell early on things were falling into place.

"I loved the way he was moving over the ground," said Baffert, who admitted there came a point late in the race where inevitability ruled and there was magic to be enjoyed. "All I did was take in the crowd."

That was the real story here: the fans, horse racing fans, the ones who love this sport so much. This was for them. Even someone lucky enough to be standing by the rail of a racetrack in Long Island, New York, could almost feel that mighty nation of fans jumping up and down in front of their television sets, cheering and screaming and then hugging.

For all those who said they just wanted to see another Triple Crown winner before they died or for those that had never seen a Triple Crown winner, this was for them.

Afterward, in the post-race news conference, Bob Baffert was asked what a Triple Crown winner really means for a sport so many have written off.

"It means we get to share somebody's greatness with everybody," said the trainer.

It was the perfect answer at the end of a perfect day at the end of a perfect Triple Crown campaign at the end of a 37-year drought.


Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader