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American Pharoah's Triple Crown: An explosive celebration 37 years in the making

American Pharoah runs his way to the Triple

American Pharoah runs his way to the Triple Crown in the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park Race Track in Elmont on Saturday, June 6, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Even an immortal can have a weakness. For Superman, it's Kryptonite. For American Pharoah, it's noise.

The rangy bay colt wears red cotton earplugs to minimize it, but they couldn't have helped much last Saturday as he rounded Belmont Park's long, sweeping turn and charged into the stretch, a quarter of a mile from eternal glory.

The roar that built as Pharoah led seven rivals down the long backstretch had reached an unheard level of volume, and he had to run through that wall of sound to achieve his destiny.

No problem.

For a few strides in the upper stretch, it looked as if the gray colt Frosted might create a little drama, but American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza wouldn't hear of it. They spurted clear, and by the eighth pole they had transformed the 147th Belmont Stakes from a parade into a coronation. As the 3-5 betting choice and the favorite of millions crossed the wire 5 lengths in front, he detonated an explosion of emotion 37 years in the making.

"He was amazing," said Espinoza, who got the sweep in his record third try at the Triple Crown. "He can't do better than that. On the first turn, that was the best feeling I ever had."

Strangers hugged, danced and high-fived to celebrate the 12th Triple Crown champion, and the first since Affirmed's unforgettable triumph by a head over Alydar in 1978. It seemed as if the result brought universal joy, which never happens at the track, where bettors compete against each other, not the house. Even those who bet against Pharoah didn't seem to mind contributing to a worthy cause.

Many win tickets never will be cashed, with most kept as souvenirs and some to be hawked on eBay. On Monday, New York Racing Association communications director John Durso Jr. said only 3,891 of the 94,128 $1 and $2 win bets on Pharoah had been exchanged.

There was even some cheering up in the press box, where a few scribes were unashamedly misty. Tears flowed for first-time race goers and for Bob Baffert, the man who trained the colt who seized the crown. He recalled his father, Bill, "The Chief," who introduced him to horses as a boy on the family's cattle ranch in Nogales, a small Arizona town near the Mexican border. He remembered Ellie, his loving but firm mother who did her best to keep her gifted but unorthodox son in line. "Wish you were here" never resonated so powerfully.

This peak experience, this ultimate high, overwhelmed a wise guy who's always good for a laugh.

"I'm very emotional," a choked-up Baffert told NBC seconds after the race. "I'm thinking about my parents, and how I wish they were alive to see this. They were with me today. I was talking with them through the whole race."

In his record fourth try for a sweep of the classics, the racing gods finally blessed the 62-year-old Hall of Famer. "I was hoping this would happen," he said. "I didn't know how I would feel, but now I do."

In 1997, he thought his gritty gray colt Silver Charm had the Belmont clinched until Touch Gold nailed him in the final 50 yards. The next year, Baffert endured the worst defeat of all time with Real Quiet, who led by four lengths with an eighth of a mile to go but lost by a nose to Victory Gallop. There was no suspense in 2002 with War Emblem, a need-to-lead type who stumbled at the start and plodded in eighth.

"I was thinking about [owners] Bob and Beverly Lewis with Silver Charm, Mike Pegram with Real Quiet, Prince Ahmed ibn Salman with War Emblem," Baffert said, " . . . and all the other people with so much passion that tried to get here but didn't."

This time, American Pharoah banished anguish and dread with a no-doubter.

"I was prepared for somebody coming because I've gone through this so many times, and I was just hoping that for once . . . ," Baffert said. "I could tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen, and all I did was just take in the crowd. It was thundering.

"It was a beautiful moment. I'll never forget that sound."

On the way to the winner's circle, Espinoza moved toward the stands so everybody could get up close and personal with their idol. For owner Ahmed Zayat, "When Victor paraded the horse up and down, that moment will be frozen in my memory."

Enjoying the scene were Affirmed's co-owner, Patrice Wolfson, 78, and his jockey, Steve Cauthen, 55. For many years, both had been hoping to welcome a new member to racing's most exclusive club. Wolfson said recently, "I think it's time," and predicted Pharoah would end the drought.

After 13 consecutive failures by Triple Crown contenders, starting with all-time great Spectacular Bid in 1979, many people thought never would last forever. Winning three times in five weeks at different distances -- 1 miles at Churchill Downs, 13/16 miles at Pimlico, 1 miles at Belmont -- against three sets of opponents began to look beyond the capability of the modern thoroughbred, bred for speed rather than stamina.

Even Baffert admitted he had his doubts. "Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem, it was really tough on them," he said. "Shipping a horse to different tracks and back and forth takes a lot out of them.

"For a while I was starting to think maybe it was never going to happen, that maybe it's the breed. It's not the breed, you just have to wait for a really superior horse, and he's got to be tough. You have to be way better to get it done, and that's what this horse is.

"The Pharoah, he's golden."

Giving thanks

And so a horse named in a contest by a Missouri woman apparently unfamiliar with the spelling of the Old Testament Pharaoh led a struggling, minority-interest sport to the Promised Land.

Mike Watchmaker, the Daily Racing Form's national handicapping columnist, a low-key guy who rarely hands out superlatives, saluted Pharoah in a Monday morning interview on, of all places, the Weather Channel. For the time being at least, horse racing is a big deal almost everywhere.

Watchmaker explained to Sam Champion how American Pharoah had to handle three very different scenarios -- a dry, loose track in Kentucky, a sea of slop amid a driving rain in Maryland, and a fast surface on Long Island. "He's an amazing, amazing animal," Watchmaker said.

Commack's own Bob Costas will be forever grateful to Pharoah. "I was 26 when Affirmed did it," Costas said. "As they went into the gate, I said to myself, 'If I have to wait another 37 years, I'll be a hundred, so get it done now.' "

On the morning after the Preakness, Baffert pondered the challenge of the Belmont. "Those New York fans, there's a lot of pressure," he said. "The ones who were there rooting for Silver Charm and Real Quiet, now their kids are going to be there, too."

Now they all can tell their grandchildren about the glorious day when they saw the dream finally come true.

Sweetness

From the beginning, American Pharoah had an aura. There was just something about the colt whom the mare Littleprincessemma brought into the world on Feb. 2, 2012, at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Kentucky.

"They told me that this is the nicest colt on the entire farm, and we have something coming here," Zayat said the day after the Belmont. "Of course we were tickled because we also bred the sire, Pioneerof the Nile. That was the second stage.

"The third stage was when he went into training. I was told, 'Mr. Z, I can tell you unequivocally, this is the fastest horse I ever put a saddle on.'

"This one is special."

American Pharoah was transferred to the nearby Vinery Stud. Zayat said he was told of his unusually mature demeanor. "Someone said when he went out into the field and played with his friends, the way he carried himself was what made him different."

His grown-up personality also is a winning one. Baffert called him "the sweetest good horse I've ever had." He accepts his favorite treats, carrots and peppermints, without nipping fingers, and poses eagerly for photographers. He's also quite a looker, compact and muscular. One woman at Churchill said, "Ooh, he's cuter than George Clooney," as her husband winced.

Potential is wonderful, but rarely is it fully realized, especially with a genetically engineered beast that Mother Nature never would have produced on her own. Selective breeding began 350 years ago in England, when King Charles II and his aristocratic cronies began matching their horses in private races on Newmarket Heath.

The thoroughbred is the most magnificent creature in the animal kingdom, but durability is not one of its strong points. According to the Jockey Club's database, 29 percent of foals never get to the races, and only 48.6 percent of those ever win. A bad step on an ankle no bigger than a man's forearm can end a career. As for winning the Triple Crown, no odds are high enough.

Baffert has had a remarkable eye for a horse since he was 12, when he began grooming and breaking his father's cheap quarter horses. The ability to look at a bunch of unraced young runners and pick out the best athlete is called the "third eye." As his longtime assistant, Jimmy Barnes, said: "Bob trawls the pond really well, and it's hard to do that at a yearling sale. The training is easy. You just have to find the horse."

Baffert didn't have to do that with Pharoah, because Zayat handed the horse of a lifetime to him.

"From Day 1, Bob was absolutely super high on this horse," Zayat said. They had won major stakes together and finished second in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, so it struck him as odd that someone with nine wins in the Triple Crown series would be so excited.

"I see a different Bob," Zayat said. "He keeps telling me, 'This is the one, this is the one.' From very early on, he knew. He told me, 'I've been waiting all my life for a horse like that.'

"And I said, 'Bob, you're scaring me.' "

In the beginning

There are few secrets at the racetrack, and none when one of the world's most high-profile horsemen gets his hands on a gifted 2-year-old. The word was out weeks before American Pharoah debuted on Aug. 9, 2014, in a 6-furlong race at Del Mar, near San Diego.

Baffert had been touting the unproven wonder horse to his wife, Jill, whom he met when she was a television reporter in Louisville. Then they watched him melt down for jockey Martin Garcia and finish fifth as the 7-5 favorite, beaten by 9 lengths. The stress of performing before a noisy crowd was unsettling.

On a day when inner peace deserted the frantic Pharoah, the winner was named Om.

NBC analyst Randy Moss called the freakout "completely out of character for his personality. He went bonkers in the paddock and during the prerace warm-ups." Baffert, who dismissed it as "a bad first day of school," recalled his wife's reaction: "If that's one of your best 2-year-olds, it's going to be a long summer."

A makeover and tutoring turned Pharoah around in a hurry. Baffert removed his blinkers, inserted the earplugs and schooled him in the gate. He didn't lose any confidence and entered him 25 days later in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity. Victor Espinoza picked up the mount after Garcia committed to another horse in the race before Baffert decided to enter Pharoah. He went off at 3-1 and cruised by 4 lengths, beginning a seven-race winning streak, all in stakes, by a total of 35 lengths.

"To enter a maiden in a Grade I . . . that is not a Bob Baffert move," Zayat said.

When you have supreme confidence in your hand, you have to go all in early.

"The first time I got on him, wow," Espinoza said. "He just floated over the ground."

On Sept. 27, Pharoah crushed Santa Anita's Grade I FrontRunner Stakes by 3 lengths. A bruised left front foot kept him out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile five weeks later, but he was voted 2-year-old champion anyway. Baffert believes in omens, and this was an excellent one, because the previous four Triple Crown winners -- Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- also won that award.

That wasn't a talking point during the winter, because Pharoah didn't run again until March 14 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. To protect the foot, Baffert had his blacksmith put on a protective plate, which he still wears, and brought him along slowly. He was in everyone's Derby top 10 but he had to start earning points in stakes to assure himself a spot in the Derby.

No problem, because he dazzled by leading throughout a 6-length rout in the slop in the Rebel Stakes, foreshadowing the Preakness. His effortless, eight-length score in the Arkansas Derby on April 11 made him the Derby favorite.

"I knew he was a really good horse [last fall],'' Baffert said last Sunday. "But when he won the Arkansas Derby, I thought, 'Oh, man, he's a superstar.' I started getting nervous."

Three weeks later on Derby Day, so did American Pharoah, who started to snap on the half-mile journey from the backstretch to the paddock. It's called The Walk, but it's more like a gantlet, with thousands, many in an alcohol-fueled frenzy, screaming nonstop. Baffert compared it to leading your horse through Times Square on New Year's Eve.

Many highly rated Derby runners lost their composure and chance to win in that crazy scene, and Baffert was having terrifying flashbacks to Pharoah's debut.

"The people got him really stirred up," Baffert said. "He was starting to get pretty hot. He dragged the groom all the way over there, and I didn't like what I saw. Finally, he cooled down, but he doesn't like all that screaming. It took something out of him, and he didn't bring his A-game that day."

The Derby was the most demanding race he ran in the spring, and Espinoza had to start urging him seven-sixteenths of a mile from the wire. Zayat got the fear as Pharoah dueled in midstretch with a very game Firing Line. The owner was reliving his traumatic second-place finishes in the Derby with Pioneerof the Nile (2009), Nehro (2011) and Bodemeister (2012).

"I started getting very, very nervous," Zayat said.

After Pharoah wore down Firing Line and edged away late to win by a length, terror gave way to ecstasy. "In seconds we went from fear that somebody is going to take it away from us again to actually you have done it," Zayat said. "Tears of joy."

Baffert said Zayat's first Derby win meant more to him than the trainer's fourth did. "It's a nerve-wracking business we go through," Baffert said. "I'm just so grateful that this horse got him there and the Zayats won. It's an unbelievable feeling."

Baffert thinks the Derby is the hardest of the three to win, and the Preakness is the easiest. That was true for him this year, when all the drama at Pimlico occurred before the race. Lightning crackled, thunder boomed and the infield was evacuated 15 minutes before post time as a downpour turned the track into muck.

"I've never been through anything like that," Baffert said. "That was crazy. I was worried about the cotton balls in his ears. What if they get soaking wet? How is he going to react? Maybe I should have taken them out.

"Then I saw a shot of the track with like a river running along the rail, and I thought, 'He's got to run through that?' "

He needn't have worried. Unlike the biblical Pharaoh, whose trip to the Red Sea did not go swimmingly, this Pharoah walked on water. His fluid, efficient stride, which resembles a computer model of a thoroughbred's ideal running action, produced a laughably easy seven-length romp.

Then it was back to Churchill for 2 weeks of jogging, galloping and two workouts that set him up perfectly to ace the "Test of the Champion."

Recognition

The morning after the Belmont, Zayat and his wife, Joanne, Baffert and Espinoza pulled a cord to unveil a banner with Zayat's blue and yellow silks. It hangs from the ceiling on Belmont Park's fourth floor next to the colors of the other Triple Crown winners -- Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed.

NBC's Moss thinks American Pharoah "with what he has accomplished, deserves to be placed in the same conversation with all-time greats such as Seattle Slew and Secretariat." So does clocker Gary Young, who before the Derby said: "In 35 years, American Pharoah is the best horse I've ever seen."

How much longer we'll be allowed to see him is the big question. Zayat sold his breeding rights last month to Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky, and he said he wants to race him for the rest of this season. Millions hope he will.

Before the Belmont Stakes post-position draw at Rockefeller Center, Baffert chatted with Billy Turner, Seattle Slew's trainer.

Baffert joked that if he went 0-for-4, he'd be done trying.

"The journey with this horse has been incredible, and it's been very stressful for all us," he said. "If I didn't win yesterday, I was going to take a bat to the Triple Crown trophy and destroy it and the jinx.

"I believe in fate. It was meant to be."

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