Conventional wisdom says that if something in sport has only been done 12 times in over 120 years and never since 1978, it must not be easy to do.
American Pharoah ran his eighth career start Saturday. When he finished it, he won horse racing’s first Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat in 1978.
Eight starts? Then a Triple Crown?
I thought this was supposed to be hard.
Affirmed, the Triple Crown winner of 1978, ran nine races in 1977 alone.
But now here comes American Pharoah, the 3-year-old colt with the chewed off tail, and he ran the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, history waiting at the finish line—and the horse with seven starts under his mane glided to victory by 5-1/2 lengths.
This, after a one-length win at Churchill Downs and a seven-length cruise in the rain and muck in the Preakness.
Just like that, the Triple Crown.
At the Preakness, American Pharoah became the first horse since 1994 to win the race while starting on the rail in the usually unfavorable no. 1 post position. The torrential downpour on race day didn’t matter, either. Jockey Victor Espinoza used American Pharoah’s long stride to its fullest.
American Pharoah has been called, by various horse experts, a “superhorse” that’s “nice and light on his feet.” Espinoza has called him “an amazing horse,” and the Mexican jockey has had two other cracks at a Triple Crown, so it’s not like he’s never been around the block.
Baseball hitters will tell you that when they swat the ball on the sweet spot of the bat and drive it out of the park, the impact is so perfect that they can barely feel it in their hands.
Espinoza said something similar when interviewed on camera immediately after Saturday’s Belmont.
“The way he moves, the way he travels, the way he stretches his legs, the way he hits the ground” Espinoza told NBC about American Pharoah, “you don’t even feel it when he’s going that fast. You feel like you’re going in slow motion.”
Except that the colt was hardly going in slow motion. He was, however, gliding into the history books on Saturday.
There was a slight stumble out of the gate, but American Pharoah quickly recovered and he basically led, wire-to-wire.
There was little drama to what should have been a dramatic moment. Instead, there was a feeling of fait accomplit as you watched Espinoza guide the three-year-old around the track, not truly challenged by the rest of the field.
It wasn’t Secretariat stuff (he won the Belmont by 31 lengths in 1973) but nor was the outcome really in doubt. The lead was never eye-opening, but nor was it in any danger.
Espinoza said that after the first turn, it was the best he’s ever felt on a horse. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he knew the Triple Crown was his long before the home stretch.
As if to punctuate his place in history, American Pharoah poured it on at the end, turning a two-length lead into a 5-1/2 length romp in the official order of finish.
With all great race horses, there’s a moment when jockey, owner and trainer all realize that something special is going on.
Owner Ahmed Zayat bought American Pharoah as a yearling for $300,000.
“We felt that he had brilliance in him,” Zayat said. “His demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved.”
Baffert, who took over the training of American Pharoah in the spring of 2014, said, “I’ve never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does.”
As for the chewed off tail, Baffert has his own theory of how that happened.
“I think he was in the pasture one day and there was a mountain lion chasing him—that was the closest he could get.”
Now when Bob Baffert is that effusive in his praise over a horse, it’s like Scotty Bowman glowing over a young hockey player. Both have seen lots of colts and skaters come and go, and when both say that a particular one is special, well, you should listen.
Espinoza was a history maker as well on Saturday. He became the oldest jockey (43) to win the Triple Crown, and the first Latino to do it.
Twice before, Espinoza had a shot at the Crown but, in his words on Saturday, “the third time was the charm.”
Baffert bemoaned to NBC in the winner’s circle that the elusive Triple Crown Trophy was something that had caused him to hate the damn thing. Espinoza said the trophy has “caused me a lot of stress.”
American Pharoah made it look easy on Saturday. He made it look easy in the mud at the Preakness. He needed a late charge to win the Kentucky Derby (the Crown’s first leg) but to use an analogy from that other sport that reveres Triple Crowns, it’s like an ace pitcher: if you don’t get to him early, forget it.
The thing about racing horses, however, is the short shelf life of their careers. In that regard, the era of a Secretariat or a Man ‘O War pack a lot of punch. The bang for the buck is amazing, because we can talk for decades about a two or three-year career.
After the Crown was won, Espinoza said that American Pharoah’s future would be determined by Baffert, and that the horse’s best interests would be of primary concern. But the jockey also acknowledged, correctly, that the sport “needs our stars,” too—i.e., racing the greats for as long as is possible and safe to do so.
Zayat said he hopes American Pharoah races for as long as he was healthy and “has it in him.”
But even if the colt was retired tomorrow, his place in history is secure.
Baffert said it best.
“This little horse deserves it,” the trainer told Forbes magazine. “There’s something about this horse that he just brought it every time. He’s a joy to be around.”