CRAWFORD | American Pharoah brings Triple Crown drought to empha - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | American Pharoah brings Triple Crown drought to emphatic end in Belmont

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AP photo. AP photo.
ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — So began the reign of American Pharoah. A step backward in the gate at the start. Then a powerful jump out of it. In two steps, he had the lead in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. He never gave it up.

All down the backstretch, trainer Bob Baffert talked to his wife, Jill. When American Pharoah turned for home and put on a burst of speed, only one horse came with him. In midstretch, with Frosted contending, Baffert said he thought, “Oh (expletive) they're going to catch me again.”

Nobody caught him. American Pharoah drew off -- three, four, five, finally 5 1/2 lengths at the wire -- putting an emphatic end to horse racing's Triple Crown drought at 37 years.

Jockey Victor Espinoza, born on a dairy farm in Mexico, paraded the winning colt the entire length of the Belmont grandstand, over ground where so many hearts have been broken in Triple Crown bids since Affirmed did it in 1978, to a long, sustained, passionate ovation from the sellout crowd at Belmont Park.

“I knew on the first turn,” said Espinoza, who told reporters he will donate all of his winner's share from the $1.5 million purse to the City of Hope cancer charity. “He was going so good. I knew I had the horse. I just couldn't mess it up.”

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Said Baffert, “I think we all knew.”

After the race, an emotional Ahmed Zayat, owner and breeder of the colt, said, “Today is not about any of us (connections). Today is about this amazing horse, and what he has done for our beautiful sport.”

After so many years of disappointment, Baffert said the significance of the accomplishment surely hadn't hit him after the race. He'd come the closest of any trainer, when his Real Quiet was beaten by a nose in 1998.

After a heart attack in 2012, and the loss of both parents, Baffert admitted he came back to Belmont changed from the trainer who brought Triple Crown hopefuls here three times before. He never thought he would be here again, then he couldn't believe his good fortune with American Pharoah. There was never a reason for concern. His training was perfect. His demeanor a pleasure.

After his final gallop before the Belmont, on Friday morning, Baffert's mood and changed demeanor were perhaps summed up best in a text he said he sent to friend and NBC producer Rob Hyland.

“I'm really getting nervous,” Baffert tweeted. Not because he thought his colt was going to lose. Instead, Baffert finished the Tweet with, “I think he's going to do it.”

American Pharoah never looked fazed by anything going on around him. Not the Monster Energy Drink girls surrounding him to the paddock. Not the thousands of fans cheering his every step. Not Frank Sinatra's “New York, New York” blaring as he walked onto the track. Not the little wobble at the start, and certainly not the seven competitors he faced in the race.

“I could tell, when we brought him over, he didn't twitch,” Baffert said. “He's just a really healthy horse. I hate to even bathe him he looks so shiny.”

He told Espninoza, in the paddock, “Go ahead and ride him. He's ready.”

He certainly was. American Pharoah completed the 1 1/2 miles in 2:26.65. Among the 12 Triple Crown winners, only Secretariat ran the race they call the “Test of Champions” faster. In aggregate, American Pharoah's times from the three Triple Crown races rank fourth among the dozen who have accomplished the feat, slower only than Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew.

And now, all of the little idiosyncrasies of American Pharoah's tale will become historical footnotes. His misspelled name. The stubby tail supposed to have been chewed off by a stablemate. The cotton in his ears to block out crowd noise. Zayat sending him to auction, then buying him back for $300,000. His gentleness around people, eating carrots out of the hands of reporters, getting right up into the face of a woman with a cell phone taking his picture.

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He was already a nice hose, a good horse. Now, he's a great one. The other results are almost inconsequential. Kiaran McLaughlin's Frosted held on for second. Dale Romans' Keen Ice was third. But the one who will be remembered is the one who finished first.

There had been a feeling about this colt all week -- all month, really -- among his handlers, horse racing fans, even longtime media observers. His win on Saturday not only was his third in five weeks, but his fourth in eight weeks — and unheard of schedule for a modern thoroughbred. Zayat said he wants American Pharoah to race on to finish the year. His breeding rights have been sold. As long as he's healthy, he wants the sport to enjoy him until he retires to Coolmore Ashford Stud.

“People want to see greatness,” Baffert said. “That's why we go to sports events. We want to see champions. You want to see LeBron James. That's basically what Victor showed them. He just took it to them. I think everybody knew that's what we were going to do, it wasn't a secret. But I was not going to woof. I was not going to jinx myself.”

No, this time there was no jinx, there was no spoiler at the wire, only the deafening sound of a long drought ending, and a Pharoah standing to accept his praise.

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