HORSE RAC­ING’S CROWN PRINCE

Amer­i­can Pharoah ends 37 years of frus­tra­tion

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By David Whar­ton

EL­MONT, N.Y. — Thirty-seven years of wait­ing ended with a fe­ro­cious charge down­the home­stretch.

Decades of near-misses and dis­ap­point­ment gave way to a horse that had a sense of his­tory fromthe start.

Ona spring af­ter­noon when a gray sky turned sunny, Amer­i­can Pharoah won the Bel­mont Stakes by more than five lengths to com­plete thor­ough­bred rac­ing’s vaunted and elu­sive Triple Crown.

“The way he runs,” jockey Vic­tor Espinoza said, “you don’t even feel it when he goes that fast.”

Pure speed trans­lated into one of those mo­ments that seemed to tran­scend sport, cap­ti­vat­ing a na­tion that had been closely fol­low­ing the quest.

Only a dozen horses have won all three of rac­ing’s big­gest events— the Ken­tucky Derby, the Preak­ness Stakes and the Bel­mont — over the last 96 years. The last was Af­firmed in 1978.

Amer­i­can Pharoah emerged from the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia sta­bles of trainer Bob Baf­fert to join that list in con­vinc­ing fash­ion.

“I re­ally felt I had the horse,” Baf­fert said. “I told Vic­tor in the pad­dock, ‘Dude, he is ready.’ ”

Baf­fert qual­i­fies as a rock star in his sport, quick with a quote, in­stantly rec­og­niz­able by his white hair and sun­glasses. The son of an Ari­zona rancher made a name for him­self with quar­ter horses at Los Alami­tos Race Course in Or­ange County be­fore jump­ing to the more glam­orous world of thor­ough--

breds.

Three times he had come to the Bel­mont, with a shot at win­ning all three Triple Crown races within a five­week pe­riod. Three times, he had fallen short.

“It takes a spe­cial horse,” he said.

If there was any doubt that Amer­i­can Pharoah qual­i­fied, it sur­faced in the first few sec­onds as the 3year-old started slowly, giv­ing the rest of the field hope.

“I tried to be close to him,” said Irad Or­tiz Jr., the jockey aboard fourth-place fin­isher Mub­taahij. “I kept fol­low­ing him and my horse ran very, very good.”

Espinoza did his best to re­main calm, guid­ing Amer­i­can Pharoah into a slight lead around the first turn, then back­ing off a bit to let the horse find a com­fort­able rhythm so he had plenty left for the end of the race.

The Bel­mont has squashed so many Triple Crown dreams, in large part, be­cause it is the long­est of the Triple Crown races at a gru­el­ing11⁄2 miles.

And con­tenders of­ten face op­po­nents who are fresh be­cause they have skipped the Derby or the Preak­ness, or both.

Since Af­firmed, Amer­i­can Pharoah was the 13th horse to start the Bel­mont af­ter win­ning the first two legs. This year, he was the only horse to run all three races.

In thor­ough­bred rac­ing his­tory, Triple Crowns have tended to come in bunches, with long stretches in be­tween.

Af­ter Sir Bar­ton in1919, it took another 11 years for the next win­ner, Gal­lant Fox, to come along. That was when a New York sports­writer coined the term “Triple Crown.”

The en­su­ing two decades saw a win­ner ev­ery fewyears, fol­lowed by another 25-year drought. The le­gendary Sec­re­tariat fi­nally broke through in 1973. Seat­tle Slew won in 1977, a year be­fore Af­firmed.

Since then, the sport has suf­fered from wan­ing in­ter­est and de­clin­ing at­ten­dance.

Ev­ery few years seemed to bring a spark — hope­fuls such as Cal­i­for­nia Chrome in 2014— but those high points ended in let­downs.

“It’s tough,” Baf­fert said last week. “I’ve seen great horses get beat.”

That in­cluded three of his own, with Sil­ver Charm los­ing the Bel­mont by three­quar­ters of a length in 1997 and Real Quiet fin­ish­ing sec­ond by a nose in 1998. War Em­blem, who stum­bled early in the 2002 Bel­mont, never re­ally had a chance.

This time, Baf­fert had a horse that needed urg­ing— and the whip — from Espinoza to win the Derby, but looked pow­er­ful run­ning away from the field in a tor­ren­tial down­pour at the Preak­ness.

Still, the 62-year-old trainer headed for New York in­sist­ing that he was ready to lose, say­ing: “You have to pre­pare your­self for dis­ap­point­ment, oth­er­wise it wears on you.”

Too make mat­ters worse, Baf­fert ar­rived at Bel­mont Park on Satur­day morn­ing with­out the med­i­ca­tion he has taken since sur­viv­ing a heart at­tack in Dubai three years ago.

“So I had to keep cool,” he said.

It helped to see the body lan­guage of his jockey down that back­stretch. Espinoza — and Amer­i­can Pharoah— looked con­fi­dent and re­laxed. From back in the pack, jockey Gary Stevens — rid­ing sev­enth-place fin­isher Tale Of Verve— could see it too. Amer­i­can Pharoah “ran a hell of a race,” he said. “That’s a hell of a horse.”

A deaf­en­ing roar swelled from the crowd of 90,000 as the field turned for home. Two ri­vals, Frosted in sec­ond place and Keen Ice in third, were close enough to make a move but only for a mo­ment.

Espinoza went to the whip, kick­ing Amer­i­can Pharoah into another gear.

“He just took off,” the jockey said. “It’s just an amaz­ing feel­ing that you have when you’re 20 yards fromthe wire.”

Baf­fert called it “that beau­ti­ful mode… theway he just goes over the ground.”

Cross­ing the fin­ish line, Espinoza shook his whip in the air be­fore tak­ing an ex­tended vic­tory lap to let the crowd of 90,000 con­tinue cheer­ing.

Later, in a news con­fer­ence, there was talk of his­toric sig­nif­i­cance. Owner Ahmed Zayat said he was glad to give his sport a much-need boost. Much credit was given to Baf­fert’s train­ing and Espinoza’s race-day savvy.

But, in the end, Baf­fert in­sisted on shift­ing the fo­cus. All the credit, he said, should go to the horse.

A horse that had ac­com­plished one of sport’s ex­tra­or­di­nary feats. A horse that had ended the long wait.

“It was about him,” Baf­fert said. “Be­cause he’s the one who did it.”

SethWenig As­so­ci­ated Press

AMER­I­CAN PHAROAH, with jockey Vic­tor Espinoza, crosses the fin­ish line in the Bel­mont Stakes to be­come the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first since Af­firmed in 1978.

Mike Stobe Getty Im­ages

JOCKEY VIC­TOR ESPINOZA, who just missed the Triple Crown last year on Cal­i­for­nia Chrome, heads to the win­ner’s cir­cle on Amer­i­can Pharoah af­ter win­ning the Bel­mont Stakes by 51⁄2 lengths.

Streeter Lecka Getty Im­ages

ESPINOZA, left, trainer Bob Baf­fert and his wife Jill, right, hoist the Triple Crown tro­phy. Baf­fert had bare­lymissed the his­toric mile­stone three times.

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