Amer­i­can Pharoah takes Bel­mont to win first Triple Crown since 1978

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEP­PER

el­mont, n.y. — The tired old cho­rus never did play Satur­day at Bel­mont Park. The gi­ant old ground never did pro­duce the habitual old sound of a sold-out 90,000 go­ing loud with an­tic­i­pa­tion and then muf­fled with dis­ap­point­ment.

In­stead, the roar that forms at the top of the stretch did some­thing fresh and un­heard for 37 years. It sus­tained it­self. It lasted in full, goose­bump frenzy as Amer­i­can Pharoah, a bay colt with a trun­cated tail and a float­ing stride, com­manded the race and de­manded some space in the books. He glided to­ward the Triple Crown. The roar formed. He be­came only the 12th Triple Crown win­ner in all the grind­ing springs and the first since Af­firmed in 1978. The roar per­sisted. Where 12 other horses had won the Ken­tucky Derby and Preak­ness but failed in New York across

the drought since Af­firmed, Amer­i­can Pharoah charged in in­su­per­a­bly by 51/2 lengths.

The roar con­tin­ued. It passed one minute, reached 90 sec­onds, soared and flared on past two min­utes. It drew from peo­ple who had felt the past sighs, from peo­ple who care deeply about the sport and from peo­ple who waited all day for I-was-there mem­ory, then hugged and bounced.

“All I did was just take in the crowd,” said Amer­i­can Pharoah trainer Bob Baf­fert, the 62-yearold vet­eran of Bel­mont Stakes ex­cru­ci­a­tion (three pre­vi­ous Triple Crown tries here) and ex­hil­a­ra­tion (the 11th trainer to win a Triple Crown). “It was thun­der­ing, and I was just en­joy­ing the call, the crowd, the noise, ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing, 37 years, and we’re part of this.”

Af­ter the par­tic­u­lar de­crescen­dos of Sil­ver Charm (lost in the fi­nal strides of 1997), Real Quiet (lost by a nose in 1998) and Smarty Jones (lost in the fi­nal fur­long of 2004), the 90,000 on a breezy evening wit­nessed mas­tery if not sus­pense. They saw the best horse in a widely fan­cied 3-year-old crop break to the lead un­der a Vic­tor Espinoza ride Baf­fert la­beled as one of “ex­treme con­fi­dence.” In the great dis­tance of the back­stretch at the 110-year-old track, they watched Amer­i­can Pharoah sus­tain that lead, per­haps con­jur­ing wor­ries from the mem­o­ries of tir­ing horses past. Yet as the stretch be­gan with Frosted bob­bing to­ward Amer­i­can Pharoah, they watched this lat­est hope only strengthen.

“It’s like driv­ing fast cars, com­pared to the oth­ers, the slower ones,” Espinoza said, al­ready hav­ing told NBC on the tele­cast, “The way he trains. The way he hits the ground. You don’t even feel him.” Baf­fert called it “that beau­ti­ful mode of the way he goes over the ground,” and said, “I just loved ev­ery frac­tion.”

By the time Amer­i­can Pharoah got done his way, his time stood at 2:26.65, com­fort­ably among some bright lights of Bel­mont lore. His ri­vals, from sec­ond­place Frosted to third-place Keen Ice to fourth-place Mub­taahij, were left be­hind. As he stood un­beaten af­ter four races on four tracks in eight weeks, his rep­u­ta­tion stood primed for du­ra­tion.

“I re­ally think the name ‘Amer­i­can Pharoah’ will al­ways be re­mem­bered,” Baf­fert said. “He’s the one that did it. We were just pas­sen­gers.”

“I’m happy for the horse, for the fans and for this man [Baf­fert],” said Ahmed Zayat, the 52-year-old Egyptian-Amer­i­can owner of Amer­i­can Pharoah who leapt into the sport only 10 years ago.

Five Satur­days prior, Amer­i­can Pharoah had come to the Ken­tucky Derby as a sub­ject of wide­spread hope. One year af­ter Cal­i­for­nia Chrome had sprin­kled charm across the spring as a son of an $8,000 mare and a $2,500 stal­lion, then reached the Bel­mont stretch and wea­ried, an­other 3-year-old had wowed the equine in­tel­lec­tu­als.

He had trav­eled around win­ning and im­press­ing Baf­fert with an adapt­abil­ity the trainer la­bels peer­less. Af­ter start­ing off with his lone loss, a fifth-place headache at Del Mar on Aug. 9, he im­ported some ad­just­ments and won at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Oak­lawn in Arkansas. He awed Espinoza on Sept. 3 at the Del Mar Fu­tu­rity and awed masses April 11 with a whop­ping eightlength win in the Arkansas Derby.

Well wide and im­per­fect in the Derby stretch, he per­sisted to best Fir­ing Line by one and Dort­mund by three. Through the mud at the Preak­ness, he thrived and dom­i­nated by seven. By the top of the stretch in the Bel­mont, Baf­fert did won­der. “I was pre­pared for some­body com­ing be­cause I’ve gone through this so many times,” he said.

No­body came. Re­ally, no­body much could. “I just dropped the reins, and he just took off,” Espinoza said. The roar be­gan and built. As if lodged in wait for 37 want­ing years, it did not ebb for three solid min­utes.

“I re­ally think the name ‘Amer­i­can Pharoah’ will al­ways be re­mem­bered. He’s the one that did it. We were just pas­sen­gers.”

Trainer Bob Baf­fert, af­ter his horse be­came the 12th to com­plete the Triple Crown


Jockey Vic­tor Espinoza holds up the Bel­mont Tro­phy while trainer Bob Baf­fert and owner Ahmed Zayat hold up the Triple Crown tro­phy af­ter Amer­i­can Pharoah won the Bel­mont Stakes to fin­ish the Triple Crown.

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