It took longer than I thought it would.
The final furlong of Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the one that gave American Pharoah and all of Thoroughbred racing the Triple Crown, lasted about 12 seconds but it seemed like an hour. He was going to win, he was going to make history, he was going to silence 37 years of doubt and slay 37 years of demons. People were going to go crazy. Hell, they were already going crazy up and down the Belmont stand, the noise bellowing in pitch and rolling high and low like some sort of tidal force.
Then time stood still.
"He's gonna do it . . . he's gonna do it . . . he's gonna do it," people shrieked. To my right, a barefoot teenage girl stood on a chair while trying to juggle an iPhone and her emotions. To my left, kids in coats and ties couldn't believe what they were seeing. They're newbies, this is their first Triple Crown. They've only known failure.
Next to me, a man whose racing-fan mother died on Mother's Day, just cheered the horse home. On the ride to Belmont, he'd talked about how his mom would call with bets for him to make on his online account. She lost most of the time, but she would have loved this win. He'd almost skipped the trip to Belmont, but listened to his wife's, "Are you crazy?" admonishment and got in the car. At some point, we high-fived and then just stood in awe. We're older. We've known Triple Crown winners, but weren't sure we'd ever see one again.
Over the small divider to the reserved seats, people reveled in the moment. They were old, young, tall, short; some wore fascinators and seersucker; others sported flip-flops and cut-off shorts. But they were there, a melting pot of history witnesses clutching $2 tickets they'd never cash.
Thoroughbred racing, maligned for generations the way people talk about a bad neighbor or a once-successful relative who squandered everything, was back thanks to a plain bay Thoroughbred horse - one of 21,725 born in the country in 2012.
He was out there on the track running another perfect race, his seventh in eight starts, flashing by us with dirt-devouring strides. All along the grandstand, people stood and cheered and stomped. They took blurry photos and shaky videos, tried to capture the moment. Down on the apron, people stood packed together for a glimpse of the moment. They tossed water, hats, programs, cups of beer in the air as the horse charged past. A single fan stood above the rest - somehow balanced on the track's outside rail - his shirtless arms outstretched to welcome a conquering hero.
Up in the box seats, American Pharoah's owners the Zayat family watched while blanketed by television cameras for the live NBC Sports telecast and for an upcoming CNBC special on Secret Lives of the Super Rich. The Zayats wore hats advertising Monster Energy Drink and the Wheels Up private aviation firm. The horse's trainer, Bob Baffert, watched while standing in front of the Burger King mascot as part of a six-figure sponsorship deal. On the tack, American Pharoah ran past a sign for Draft Kings, an online fantasy sports wagering website. This is the new reality in a world of selfie sticks and Snapchat stories.
Compare that to the world of a time traveler from the Triple Crowns of the 1970s. Of course, this is horse racing and they're around. Just past the finish line, Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery sat in a box soaking up the feeling of a Triple Crown once more. She'd stood tall and waved with both hands in 1973, when her horse won by 31 lengths. Now, she walks with assistance, but knows a great moment when she sees one. And she's still proud. Steve Cauthen and Jean Cruguet, the jockeys of the last two Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew, respectively, watched as Victor Espinoza pumped his arms and merely waved his whip to see out the final yards of a great sporting achievement. Cauthen and Cruguet had done the same, though Cauthen had to work a bit harder for his head decision over Alydar in 1978. Soon they would no longer be the last jockeys to win the Triple Crown.
High over the track, announcer Larry Collmus tried to do it all justice. Before the gates opened, he'd narrated with questions, "Is today the day? Is he the one?" Now, as American Pharoah surged away, Collmus - who took over the NYRA announcing job this year after the retirement of Tom Durkin - found an answer.
"And American Pharoah makes his run for glory . . . with one eighth of a mile to go, American Pharoah's got a 2-length lead. Frosted is all out . . ."
Then came the finish line.
". . . and here it is, the 37-year wait is over, American Pharoah is finally the one. American Pharoah has won - the Triple Croowwnn."
American Pharoah galloped out like he ran, firing legs in rhythm and easing down from his 24-seconds-a-quarter-mile clip to something less devastating but no less perfect after 1 1/2 miles in 2:26.65 (the sixth fastest in history). The Burger King retreated to the clubhouse. All but the essential TV cameras dispersed. The Zayats tackled each other, again. Baffert hugged his family, accepted congratulations from rival horsemen, tried to settle some emotions while talking to NBC's Kenny Rice. Kiaran McLaughlin, whose horse Frosted beat everybody but American Pharoah, smiled like a winner and said simply, "Second best." As a trainer, he was a little disappointed in the outcome. As a racing fan, he was thrilled.
Joe Torre, a four-time World Series winner and co-owner of former Baffert star Game On Dude, had delivered the "riders up" call in the paddock before the race, but was just a man in the crowd as the celebration truly launched. Baffert stopped briefly and talked to Chenery, Triple Crown then and now in a single moment, before heading down the steps to track level. Behind him, Ahmed Zayat followed the same path - only to be grizzly-hugged by trainer Dale Romans, whose horse Keen Ice finished third. The slaps on the back echoed up the steps.
Out on the track, American Pharoah returned triumphant with an outrider escort. Espinoza stood tall in the stirrups, and acknowledged the crowd on a quarter-mile canter up the stretch, proving that Daytona 500 winners aren't the only ones capable of victory laps. Still on their feet, still cheering, still summoning chants of "Pharoah . . . Pharoah . . . Pharoah" (no matter how you spell it), the 90,000 greeted racing's new hero with a sound that washed down as hard - and twice as cleansing - as the rain at the Preakness three weeks earlier.
Everywhere you looked, fans stood - at railings in the terraces upstairs, in the box seats, on benches at ground level, along the track, around the winner's circle. They stood and watched and celebrated and soaked in the achievement and were still standing when the horses came out for the next race. The Belmont Stakes for a Triple Crown attempt, especially one that comes after 12 failures spread over 36 years, is the rare sporting event where everyone roots for the same outcome.
And maybe that's why it's so loud. Despite a one-sided stadium, albeit one with a roof that must serve as an amplifier, the place thunders with sound. It's part woosh-woosh-woosh, part wump-wump-wump, all screams and urges and anticipation. It came for California Chrome, briefly, last year. It came for Smarty Jones, until the final strides, in 2004. It came for Silver Charm, until Touch Gold came running, in 1997. It lasted until the very end for Real Quiet in 1998. In some form or another, I'm sure it was there for Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and the others back when the Triple Crown seemed common.
But I doubt it lasted as long.
Photos by Tod Marks.