The honored guest at this year's Belmont Stakes flew from Louisville in a manner befitting royalty, and made the trip just fine. Overwhelmingly, onlookers noted how this special guest caught the eye and captured the imagination. There was a renewed feeling that this finally could be the year.
Not bad for a 37-year-old.
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We're talking about the Triple Crown trophy, the prize that could await American Pharoah, another compelling visitor just in from Churchill Downs. The trophy's home is the Kentucky Derby Museum at that track. It sits there, just waiting to be earned, at which time it will be given to the horse's owner and replaced by a new one in a display case.
They haven't had to make a replacement since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.
"We're getting sick of looking at it," joked Darren Rogers, the Kentucky Derby communications executive responsible for escorting the trophy, as the Stanley Cup's white-gloved handlers do.
Unlike hockey's Cup and just about all other sports hardware, the Triple Crown trophy does not get a public presentation every year. It could be handed out Saturday, or never again. There is just no telling.
Fact is, winning thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown is one of the toughest achievements in sports -- not quite as rare as winning golf's Grand Slam of four majors in a year, which never has been done, but it is in the conversation. Consider that since the last Triple Crown winner, New York has seen one team win four Stanley Cups in a row and another win three consecutive World Series.
You can't compare sports, of course, because winning the Triple Crown entails beating fresh horses in the Belmont. Owners and trainers who lose the Kentucky Derby often pull out of the Preakness and get their horses nice and rested for the mile-and-a-half on Long Island. You could argue about the unfairness of that, as one of California Chrome's minority owners did after the Belmont last June. You also could argue that the Preakness is easier to win. Fair or not, it is not going to change.
"That's what makes it so special. The horses that won the Triple Crown followed the same rules," said Jerry Crawford, manager of Donegal Racing, which has Keen Ice in the Belmont. (Victor Espinoza, jockey for 2014 Triple Crown contender California Chrome and American Pharoah, basically said the same thing.)
Crawford said that if he does not have a horse in the field and if the field is worthy, he generally pulls for someone to sweep the three big races.
So does Ahmed Zayat, American Pharoah's owner.
"Last year, we were rooting our heads off for California Chrome," Zayat said after the post-position draw on Wednesday at Rockefeller Center. "As a racing fan, you have to enjoy that. When you see Michael Jordan or LeBron James, you have to enjoy them, even if you're rooting for the other team."
The trophy, a three-sided sterling silver vase, was near the podium on Wednesday when American Pharoah received the No. 5 post position. It had been transported two weeks ago by Ferrari Armored Services, Rogers said, and displayed at the Hour Passion store on 34th Street as part of a sponsorship from Longines.
Rogers picked it up with a car service at 8:45 on Wednesday for the noon draw. He will deliver it to the track Saturday, wearing blue-gray gloves, which he finds more grittily appropriate for racing than stark white.
People love to pose with it and he allows that. He also loves telling about how it was established in 1950, designed by the Cartier jewelry company. Trophies were presented retroactively to the owners of all previous Triple Crown winners. It took until 1973 for the first immediate presentation (Secretariat).
"This is the 14th time this particular trophy has been up here," Rogers said.
Bob Baffert, American Pharoah's trainer, looked at it during his public remarks on Wednesday and said, "Is that trophy 37 years old? Because it looks in great shape."
He has been just as impressed with his horse's condition. So, who knows.
Rogers said, with a smile, "There's a hunger to get rid of this. We liken it to an orphan who is trying to find a good home. Maybe it's on Saturday."