Amer­i­can Pharoah’s his­toric Triple Crown

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Sally Jenk­ins

Amer­i­can Pharoah, front right, rid­den by Vic­tor Espinoza, crosses the fin­ish line dur­ing the 147th run­ning of the Bel­mont Stakes on Satur­day. The 3yearold colt be­came the first horse to cap­ture the Ken­tucky Derby, Preak­ness and Bel­mont since Af­firmed in 1978.

el­mont, n.y. — Amer­i­can Pharoah’s bay coat turned al­most black with sweat from ef­fort, yet in full stride he left such an im­pres­sion of ease that he ap­peared to hover and flut­ter over the deep sand of Bel­mont Park. His jockey, Vic­tor Espinoza, rode such a per­fect race he seemed al­most mo­tion­less un­til he crossed the fin­ish line, when he be­came a flash of turquoise silk, writhing with joy un­til he threat­ened to come out of the sad­dle on his victory lap.

The first Triple Crown win­ner in 37 years will be re­mem­bered for that sig­na­ture sense of sup­ple ease, the lim­ber mo­bil­ity that made some­thing so dif­fi­cult seem so nat­u­ral. His 51/ 2- length victory in the Bel­mont Stakes was vis­ually strik­ing for the amount of air be­tween him and his in­fe­ri­ors and be­tween his hooves and the ground. All week, trainer Bob Baf­fert had talked about the good

“vibe” around his horse, and that’s what he ran like, a weight­less em­a­na­tion that left a crowd of 90,000 roar­ing with ap­pre­ci­a­tion, not just be­cause they were lucky enough to see his­tory but be­cause he was beau­ti­ful.

“As soon as I sit in the sad­dle, it was such power,” Espinoza said.

How long can 90,000 peo­ple scream with their mouths wide open? Sev­eral min­utes-worth. That’s what rac­ing his­tory sounded like, a sus­tained throb­bing wave for the horse, jockey and trainer. It built down the back­stretch and then hit a sus­tained peak as he crossed the fin­ish line. “All I did was just take in the crowd,” Baf­fert said. “It was thun­der­ing.”

On 12 pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sions since 1978, horses had come to the Bel­mont with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and all of them had failed. Baf­fert, at 62 with a sweep of hair white as sea foam, had trained three of those fail­ures. “It’s caused me a lot of mis­ery,” he said.

Good horses, maybe even great horses, had been de­feated by the com­bi­na­tion of Bel­mont’s sink­ing an­kle-deep sand, the mile-and-a-half dis­tance that made legs heavy and a fresh field of horses who had sat out the Preak­ness and were more rested. All of rac­ing won­dered whether the Triple Crown just wasn’t achiev­able any­more — maybe the horses were too finely bred.

Even Amer­i­can Pharoah’s con­nec­tions weren’t sure it could be done — they only hoped it could. No one was more deeply ex­pe­ri­enced in Triple Crown dis­ap­point­ment than Baf­fert. He had been here with Sil­ver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Em­blem in 2002. On those oc­ca­sions, he had been full of con­fi­dence only to have his heart crushed. This time, ev­ery public state­ment was an at­tempt to man­age ex­pec­ta­tions.

“The horse is do­ing well,” he said, “but we still have to get around there.”

Baf­fert nursed his horse care­fully all week; Amer­i­can Pharaoh’s leg wraps were white and sump­tu­ous enough for Cleopa­tra. On the af­ter­noon of the race, the barn was pin-drop quiet and a semi-fortress. A pha­lanx of black Es­calades formed a bar­rier in front, and the green metal-sid­ing doors were pulled tightly shut to pre­vent cam­eras from dis­rupt­ing the horse’s peace.

At other barns, doors stood open and ac­tiv­ity was ev­i­dent: Laun­dry flapped on lines, and grooms hosed down horses. But at Amer­i­can Pharaoh’s sta­ble, the only ac­tion was an oc­ca­sional breeze ruf­fling the gera­ni­ums.

Gawk­ers stood out­side star­ing at noth­ing much, catch­ing an oc­ca­sional glimpse of a sta­ble­hand walk­ing a brown-faced crea­ture in a slow cir­cle.

As Espinoza said, “A lot of things can go wrong in a tenth of a sec­ond.”

There just were so many odds, num­bers and other fac­tors work­ing against the horse. Amer­i­can Pharoah was rac­ing for the fourth time in eight weeks. No other horse in the field had run in both legs of the Triple Crown. The last nine Bel­mont win­ners had skipped the Preak­ness.

“We’ll just get him ready, and if he’s great, he’ll get it done,” Baf­fert said, al­most shrug­ging.

Baf­fert thought he had great horses be­fore — and he wasn’t wrong. But how to tell the in­de­fin­able dif­fer­ence be­tween a great horse and an all-time im­mor­tal who be­longs in the se­lect group of Triple Crown win­ners? Amer­i­can Pharoah’s peo­ple only knew that the horse had an “it” fac­tor.

Ac­cord­ing to Espinoza, what gave them all be­lief was that ease in his step, “The way he moves,” Espinoza said. “It re­ally don’t feel like he goes fast. It feels like slow mo­tion, but he’s pass­ing other horses.”

As post time ap­proached, the sense of oc­ca­sion steadily built, and maybe Amer­i­can Pharoah sensed it de­spite Baf­fert’s ef­forts to keep him quiet. If noth­ing else, surely the horse could smell the com­mo­tion. The air was a mix of Ma­canudo cigar smoke, grill fumes, mus­tard and spir­its, along with sweet hay and other things that fer­ment at a track.

He was cool in the pad­dock, still as a statue. Baf­fert stud­ied him and told Espinoza: “He’s ready. Go ahead and ride him with con­fi­dence. Put him on the lead and go for it, and if he doesn’t make it, don’t worry about it.”

When Amer­i­can Pharoah got on to the track, he be­gan to throw his head around and dodge side­ways, even thrust­ing his mouth at the lead pony. He was antsy. His owner, Ahmed Zayat, turned to his wife. “Get ready to be the owner of the Triple Crown win­ner,” he said.

Espinoza knew be­fore they even got in the gate he had the horse. “Warm­ing up, he was just class, all class,” he said. By the first turn, “It was the best feel­ing I ever had,” the jockey said.

As they turned for home, Baf­fert pre­pared him­self — he had seen his horses lead the Bel­mont be­fore only to be caught and passed. But by the eight pole, Baf­fert re­laxed. “Once Vic­tor got him in the clear and got him in that beau­ti­ful mode of the way he just goes over the ground, I just loved ev­ery frac­tion,” he said.

Fi­nally, here was the horse with the right build and stride and tem­per­a­ment to join the im­mor­tal 11 oth­ers. He had an­other qual­ity, too, some­thing else that seemed to slide so nat­u­rally into rac­ing his­tory.

“It’s a great name,” Baf­fert said.

LU­CAS JACK­SON/REUTERS

* Did not start in the Bel­mont Stakes be­cause of an in­jury. Cal­i­for­nia Chrome

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