Well-earned Crown

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Darkness was coming, helicopters circling, drunks reveling, sirens blaring and photographers scrambling. American Pharoah, newly christened Triple Crown winner and the star of the American sports world, finally emerged from the test barn and started his short walk toward Barn 1 in the Belmont Park stable area.

The colt with the chopped tail, bright eyes and ever-present pricked ears didn’t look overly energetic. He wasn’t the least bit lethargic either.

Since he’d just run 12 furlongs faster than nearly all of the previous 146 Belmont Stakes winners, and won the other two jewels of the Triple Crown in the span of five weeks, it was clear the colt was deserving of just a short walk followed by a quiet night. Chances are he didn’t get the uninterrupted peaceful rest he deserved, considering those pesky humans making noise not 50 yards away on Hempstead Turnpike and even closer from partiers not too far from his stall well past 10 p.m.

Three hours earlier and on the same racetrack where scores of other Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners tried and failed to close the deal for the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes, the general sentiment from nearly all of the 90,000-some in attendance and millions more around the country was that American Pharoah deserved to sweep the series.

Jockey Victor Espinoza deserved it.

Trainer Bob Baffert deserved it.

Somehow, racing deserved it.

The funny thing about racing that most people ignore, or simply don’t understand, is that nothing is deserved simply because it makes things better without first being earned. There’s no free lunch, the game’s not played in short pants, pick the cliché, the point is it’s a very tough game with a lot more setbacks than successes. And the best way to celebrate those successes, to truly feel validation, is when they’re earned the hard way.

So did American Pharoah, Espinoza, Baffert and owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat earn the Triple Crown?

When the 12 furlongs of the Belmont were completed in the 2 minutes, 26.66 seconds that it took American Pharoah to get around Big Sandy in front of a wild celebration not felt at a racetrack in this nation for decades, the answer was an emphatic yes.


“The Triple Crown is about the horse,” Baffert said afterward, below the Belmont grandstand and clubhouse that was rocking as American Pharoah stormed to his historic 5 1/2-length win over Frosted. “I really think American Pharoah, the name American Pharoah will always be remembered. It was about him because he’s the one that did it.

“We were just basically passengers. … I don’t know if I’ll ever have another horse like that. I’ve had some great horses. I’m just going to enjoy this one.”

The general sentiment of many pulling for American Pharoah to get it done in the Belmont and end the 37-year drought without a Triple Crown was fairly widespread throughout the country, particularly in California where his team is based and in the Bluegrass where he was bred and won the Kentucky Derby May 2.

The more pragmatic observers, the jaded and grizzled veterans of the game or those on social media who like to be contrarian as a way to make a name, took a different look at American Pharoah and his quest.

Two common threads permeated their thoughts.

They looked at his slow winning times in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – historically sluggish by modern standards – as a reason he might be undeserving. He was slow, they said.

American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby in 2:03.02, certainly not the worst clocking in history but nowhere near the fastest even by modern standards. He defeated a field many of those same critics considered one of the best in modern history, knocking off the likes of Firing Line,  previously unbeaten stablemate Dortmund, Wood Memorial winner Frosted and other top contenders from trainer Todd Pletcher’s deep arsenal in the process.

The Preakness was even slower – the worst in nearly 50 years and a pedestrian 1:58.46 for the 1 3/16 miles – albeit in a monster thunderstorm that significantly altered the condition of the track in minutes.

Those two races led the critics to concede that American Pharoah was undoubtedly a quality colt, but perhaps not worthy of joining the fraternity of the 11 previous Triple Crown winners.

American Pharoah was good, but the Triple Crown is for the very great, they said.

The Belmont Stakes threw frigid cold water on that fire of an argument.

The Belmont has been contested at 1 1/2 miles every year since 1926 and also from 1874 to 1889, and American Pharoah ran the sixth fastest winning time in the race’s history. His 2:26.65 clocking was only slower than Secretariat (2:24), Easy Goer (2:26), A.P. Indy (2:26), Point Given (2:26 2/5) and Risen Star (2:26 2/5). Only Secretariat won the Triple Crown from that list of legends, four of them in the Hall of Fame and Risen Star a debatable oversight from the voters.

American Pharoah ran the second half of his Belmont faster than the first – the opening 6 furlongs in 1:13.41 before coming home in 1:13.24.

To put those final 6 furlongs in perspective, consider how long it took the trio widely considered the best Triple Crown winners in history to run the same distance. Secretariat won in a unworldly 2:24 but his final 6 furlongs were run in 1:14.20, Citation won in 2:28 1/5 and his final 6 furlongs were run in 1:13 2/5 and Seattle Slew won in 2:29 3/5 and his final 6 furlongs were run in 1:15 3/5.

But what about that last quarter-mile?

American Pharoah was almost unworldly in the stretch, pulling away from Frosted, Mubtaahij and the others with ease by running his last 440 yards in :24.32. Only the filly Rags to Riches – who coincidently ran her last 6 furlongs pretty close to or under 1:13 – ran a faster final quarter when she zipped home in :23.83 in 2007 to defeat Preakness winner and eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin by a head.

“We had the horse, we were hoping we had the horse and once Victor got him in the clear, got him in that beautiful mode of the way he just goes over the ground, I just loved every fraction,” Baffert said. “Talking to (my wife) Jill the whole way around there, hit the 37 (1:37.99 for 1 mile) and turning for home, I was prepared for somebody coming because I’ve gone through this so many times. I could tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen and all I did was take in the crowd.”

“The crowd was just – it was thundering and I was just enjoying the call and the crowd, the noise and everything happening. Thirty-seven years, I’m part of this, but you know what, that little horse, he deserved it. He’s a great horse.”

The crowd went wild when American Pharoah hit the wire. Drinks and programs flew in the air, arms were raised, shouts of “Pharoah, Pharoah, Pharoah” rang out from one end of the massive plant to the other.

Up in the owners box area, where things weren’t quite so packed, rival trainers were quick to acknowledge Baffert. Todd Pletcher, who tried to knock off American Pharoah with Madefromlucky (sixth) and Materiality (eighth), was first to offer congratulations. Kiaran McLaughlin, who sent out Frosted, also said some kind words.

Elsewhere, in the not-so-mad dash in the staircase that leads from the boxes down to the tunnel, people made their way with tears in their eyes.

“I can’t believe it,” one woman said, her mouth agape. “It really happened. Amazing.”

Baffert continued to laud his colt during post-race interviews but had to feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction and validation for finally sweeping the Triple Crown. He’s come the closest – winning the Derby and Preakness before finishing second by what he called a “nasty bob” in the Belmont with Real Quiet in 1998. (Left, Baffert and son Bode play around with Triple Crown trophy. Tod Marks Photo)

The Hall of Fame trainer also finished second in 1997 with Silver Charm and brought War Emblem to the doorstep of history in 2002, only to see his dreams go up in smoke when that colt stumbled at the start and lost all chance.

Baffert resisted any temptation to bring American Pharoah directly to Belmont after his 7-length romp in the Preakness, following a more familiar route and training the colt at Churchill Downs for his date with destiny. The trainer did the same thing with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem, who all lost the Belmont, but he’d also done it with Point Given, who thrashed the Belmont field in 2001.

Legendary horseman John Nerud was quoted in a New York Times feature article saying that the Triple Crown all comes down to American Pharoah being “a superior horse, and he better not have trained him too darn much.”

Baffert apparently didn’t, although he did breeze American Pharoah twice at Churchill between the Preakness and the Belmont. The works looked good on paper – a half-mile in :48 May 26 and 5 furlongs in 1:00.20 six days later – and when American Pharoah went to the track for the first time at Belmont Park last Wednesday he looked every bit as fresh and happy as he did in Louisville and Baltimore.

American Pharoah only jogged that first morning before Baffert, assistant Jimmy Barnes and exercise rider Jorge Alvarez let him turn around and gallop Thursday and Friday.

It’s not a stretch to say if it weren’t for the chopped tail and an omnipresent gaggle of photographers following him to the track for training that American Pharoah might blend in with his brethren going about their morning paces.

The narrative changes significantly when he trains.

American Pharoah is unmistakable when he gallops, smooth and quiet, responsive to the cues of Alvarez or jockey Martin Garcia, who breezes him as a key member of Baffert’s team. The horse is all business on the racetrack, morning or afternoon, but back at the barn he’s chill.

“If they were in a herd of horses they’d probably be leading the mares around,” Baffert said when asked earlier in the week about what makes the great ones really stand out. “They want to take control of the situation. (American Pharoah), he’ll be walking and when he sees an open area he has to stop and look. He wants to look around.

“We give him that pleasure of letting him stop. Sometimes he doesn’t want to go back into his stall, he wants to stop and check things out. He’s a very intelligent horse. At the same time he’s competitive and when he runs he wants to dominate. But when he gets back to the barn he’s like a teddy bear and is really sweet.”

American Pharoah’s demeanor and Espinoza’s deft touch make for a powerful combination.

The jockey earned some sweet redemption of his own in this year’s Belmont.

He was criticized in some corners for his ride aboard California Chrome last year, when he kept the fan favorite down on the inside and tracked the pace instead of just going for the lead early. On the surface the criticism seemed valid, after all, California Chrome did his best running while in the clear and to the outside. A closer look tells a different story, perhaps of a colt that just wasn’t quite the same in the Belmont, or in the 10 months after his Derby and Preakness victories. California Chrome has won only once in six starts during that time, that coming in a less-than-stellar Grade 1 stakes on the grass at Del Mar. The horse also suffered a significant cut on a front heel leaving the Belmont gate.

Espinoza conceded that he knew what it felt like to come away empty in the Belmont, saying he felt like a “loser” when California Chrome and War Emblem were derailed in their Triple Crown chances. Now he knows what it’s like to be a winner, and is the 11th jockey to win the Triple Crown and the first Hispanic to sweep the series.

“It’s just amazing that I come here, that I win … the Triple Crown,” Espinoza said. “It’s unbelievable. I looked at that trophy, I was excited and kind of angry because two times I can’t get it until now.”

Espinoza donated his $80,000 share of the winner’s purse to City of Hope, a leading research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases in Duarte, California. He told reporters after that race that he was making that donation, a truly touching and unselfish move for a man who hours earlier saw bits of his personal life splashed across the front of a New York tabloid newspaper. (Right, Espinoza toasts the Triple Crown with a Monster Energy drink as Zayats hoist Triple Crown trophy. Tod Marks Photo)

None of that bothered the 43-year-old who grew up on a dairy farm in Hidalgo, Mexico. He rode in three races before the Belmont Stakes – finishing third aboard Sky Kingdom in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Invitational, fifth on Oceanwave in the Acorn going 1 mile and fourth on Finnegans Wake in the Knob Creek Manhattan going 1 1/4 miles on the grass – before getting the Belmont Stakes.

When he finally managed to cut through the jam-packed crowd in the paddock before the Belmont he found a typically relaxed American Pharoah waiting. American Pharoah was as cool as his veteran rider was in the preliminaries.

American Pharoah was the first to arrive in the paddock, at 6:20 p.m. and with 30 minutes to post time. He was hard to see amidst the well-dressed in the paddock, but with 16 minutes to post he stopped and posed right in the center of the walkway on front of the saddling stalls. His ears, stuffed with cotton as always to keep drown out the crowd noise, pricked.

The other seven entrants in the 147th Belmont walked in small ovals as their connections chatted and fretted, probably hoping for a bad day from the favorite. Retired New York Yankees manager Joe Torre gave the call for riders up with 15 minutes to post.

After a half-turn of the paddock that earned a hearty round of boos from paying members of the crowd probably hoping for a little more out of the “enhanced customer experience” track management talks a lot about, the field made its way through the tunnel and onto the racetrack.

The Belmont went off two minutes after its scheduled post of 6:50 and after just a slight hesitation, American Pharoah and Espinoza were in front. Espinoza said he “missed just a little” leaving the gate. From there they carved out quarter-mile splits in :24.06, :24.77, :24.58, :24.58, :24.34 and :24.32.

“He was ready today,” Espinoza said afterward, perhaps the understatement of the year. “Bob, he trained this horse just perfect. Unbelievable. … That makes my job more easy, sort of that confidence, and warming up, he was just class. All class.”

Zayat was confident that American Pharoah’s class would shine yet again in the Belmont, which if he won would be his seventh straight victory after a fifth in his career debut last August at Del Mar.

The colt’s owner and breeder, in the middle of legal battles over alleged gambling debts and the subject of more than a few articles related to what some in the industry call “slow pay,” was on hand for American Pharoah’s morning training.

Friday morning he and son Justin, a recent graduate of NYU whose passion for the game is unmistakable, were decked out in black ball caps emblazoned with Monster Energy’s. The energy drink company entered into a sponsorship agreement with the  colt to include branding on jackets, caps and apparel as well as American Pharoah’s blanket, gear and other items. Another deal with signed with the aviation firm Wheels Up and more are expected in the coming days and weeks. (Left, Zayat celebrates American Pharoah’s Belmont victory. Tod Marks Photo)

The sponsorships were the latest financial windfall to come about as a result of American Phoaroah’s success on the racetrack. The Zayats revealed this spring that a deal to sell American Pharoah’s breeding rights to Irish conglomerate Coolmore was reached earlier in the year.

The whole situation seemed in stark contrast to last year, when the modestly bred California-bred California Chrome and his neophyte owners and breeders, with successful but lesser known trainer Art Sherman were going for the Triple Crown. Zayat is a big personality with big goals and a large breeding and racing operation. He’s got a big ego, frequently inserted himself into press conferences in the days leading up to the Belmont to give his take even when he wasn’t asked, and doesn’t apologize for his thoughts. He’s also an unabashed fan of the game and respects the traditions of the Triple Crown.

“At this juncture it’s about defining the greatness of American Pharoah,” he said after the victory. “I have been … saying he’s a very good horse, he could be special, but in order for you to come and win the Triple Crown, you have to define greatness. As Bob said before, he does everything so easy.

“We all wanted it. We wanted it for the sport. So I’m happy for the horse, for the fans and for this man (Baffert) who has done – you all know, in order to get a horse off any injury to come and compete and do what he does – everything has to go perfect but you have to be literally a magician. … This man here, Victor, rode this horse like Bob always told him, ‘you are sitting on a Ferrari.’ I mean, he moves like a Ferrari, he runs like a Ferrari. But again, this is not about none of us, this is about American Pharoah and what does this mean for our beautiful sport.”

What American Pharoah’s Triple Crown means immediately was easy to detect. The Zayats, Baffert and Espinoza made numerous appearances on morning news programs the day after and two days after the Belmont. Espinoza threw out the first pitch at the New York Yankees’ game Sunday afternoon. More appearances are planned.

American Pharoah is due to be paraded in front of the crowd during Churchill Downs’ “Downs After Dark” program that includes the Grade 1 Stephen Foster this Saturday. NBC Sports Network increased its coverage from one hour to two, starting at 8 p.m. ET Saturday, so it could show American Pharoah.

The long-term effect will take, well, longer.

One thing is for certain, American Pharoah gained a lot more fans Saturday winning the Belmont than he did coming into the great race. Nowhere was that more evident than after the Triple Crown winner made the quarter-mile walk from the finish line to the quarter-pole gap after the winner’s circle festivities were complete. More than a half dozen Homeland Security representatives walked in front, on the sides and behind the colt and a handful of photographers and media members gave chase with groom Eduardo Luna on his left and Alvarez, with the blanket of carnations draped over his shoulders, on the right.

Turning the corner through the gap and across the horse path that splits the road, a huge crowd of revelers on their way to their cars in far-off parking lots were stopped by security guards.

A few were oblivious, even though American Pharoah was sporting a white net cooler emblazoned with his name and “12th Triple Crown Winner” with the logos from the trio of classics across the bottom. Most knew right away who he was and fired off as many photos as their smartphones would snap in the seconds it took until he was inside the fenced in stable area.

American Pharoah went to the even more secure test barn from there, the first respite after the madness of the moment he set off a half-hour earlier. He’d earned the break, and the bath he got out back, just as he’d earned the Triple Crown.