It's called waiting in front, a simple but brilliant tactic. The jockey guns to the early lead and slows the pace, keeping his mount fresh. Then comes a sprint for the final quarter-mile, when everybody tries to accelerate but can't catch the leader.
That's how Victor Espinoza guided American Pharoah into immortality Saturday with a 5-length triumph in the 147th Belmont Stakes. So much was made about the difficulty of staying 1 miles in his fourth race in eight weeks against well-rested opponents.
Trainer Bob Baffert told Espinoza to put his long-striding colt on the lead, and that if it didn't work out, not to worry. The race unfolded exactly as Baffert wanted, and racing has its 12th Triple Crown winner a seemingly endless 37 years after Affirmed became No. 11.
"He broke a little step slowly," Espinoza said, "but in two jumps I was right on the lead. That's where I want to be, a length in front of everybody and just steady all the way around. I tell you, I had the best feeling ever when he crossed the first turn."
Baffert felt great when he saw the fractions: 24.06 seconds for a quarter-mile, 48.83 for a half-mile, 1:13.81 for 6 furlongs and 1:37.99 for a mile. Baffert's fourth try at the Crown and Espinoza's third, both records, was destined to work out perfectly.
"I just loved every fraction," Baffert said. "I was prepared for somebody coming because I've gone through this so many times. I was just hoping that for once . . . "
Runner-up Frosted moved up the rail to challenge entering the stretch, but there was no drama. The 3-5 favorite extended his two-length lead by 3 lengths as the crowd of 90,000 gave him unconditional love and adulation. People embraced, teared up and made a joyful noise not heard since Affirmed beat Alydar by a head in the 1978 Belmont.
"I could tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen," Baffert said, "and all I did was just take in the crowd. It was thundering."
Pharoah paid $3.50 after being timed in 2:26.65, the fastest Belmont since Baffert's Point Given went in 2:26.40 in 2001. It was his seventh straight win, all in stakes, after losing his debut. He earned $800,000 for owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat.
"I don't think it's sunk in yet," Zayat said. "At this point it's about defining greatness for American Pharoah."
There had been so many disappointments, with 13 horses winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before not finishing the job in the Belmont. This nightmare had more plot twists than a long-running soap opera.
In 1979, a safety pin supposedly pricked the foot of Spectacular Bid. In 1997, Touch Gold nailed Baffert's Silver Charm. A year later, Baffert endured the most brutal beat in racing history when Real Quiet went down by a nose to Victory Gallop.
In 2004, Smarty Jones shook off Rock Hard Ten and Eddington and got clear by 3 lengths. He was exhausted inside the eighth pole, and 36-1 shot Birdstone got him. It was as if Smarty punched out two guys in a bar fight before somebody sneaked up from behind and knocked him out with a pool cue.
In 2008, Big Brown looked like a sure thing before he lost a shoe and had traffic trouble before Kent Desormeaux pulled him up.
It took a horse born on Feb. 2 to end racing's Groundhog Day. Like Rangers fans in 1994 and Red Sox Nation in 2004, horse people said "Demons, be gone," to dread and anguish and at long last savored the glory.
"This is the moment we'll never forget," Baffert said.
Norman Casse, 31, is the assistant trainer to his father, Mark Casse. They took on Pharoah with Danzig Moon in the Derby and the Preakness before giving up the chase. Norman Casse was rooting for Pharoah Saturday.
"I've never seen a Triple Crown in my lifetime, and I'd love to see one," he said. "I'm sick of hearing people say it can't be done." Norman, they finally were wrong. Everybody, say hallelujah.