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American Pharoah ends Triple Crown drought, cruises to victory in Belmont Stakes

American Pharoah, winning the triple crown in the

American Pharoah, winning the triple crown in the 147th Running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park Race Track in Elmont June 6, 2015. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The wall of sound kept building as American Pharoah glided along in front down Belmont Park's long backstretch. When he turned into the stretch with a two-length lead, it began to peak.

Could it be? The 12th Triple Crown champion? At last? After 37 years and 13 disappointments on the gigantic track in Elmont, was it really going to happen? Yes, it was, and the racing world rejoiced.

A crowd of 90,000 that came to witness history on Saturday got all it wanted, and as American Pharoah crossed the finish line 5 1/2 lengths ahead of Frosted, it erupted. Not since Affirmed beat Alydar for the third consecutive time in the spring of 1978 had Belmont Park heard so much joyful noise.

"I just took in the crowd," Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert said. "It was thundering."

In his fourth attempt, Baffert finally claimed the most coveted trophy in racing. Real Quiet's loss by a nose in the 1998 Belmont may be the most excruciating defeat in racing history.

"I was prepared for somebody coming, because it's happened to me before," Baffert said. "But then in the stretch, I knew he had it."

Jockey Victor Espinoza brandished his whip in a triumph that everybody present and millions around the world shared.

Baffert, 62, got choked up, thinking of how he wished his parents, Bill "The Chief" and Ellie, had lived to see it. "It's very emotional," Baffert said. "My parents were with me today. I was talking to them the whole race. I didn't know how I was going to feel. Now I do."

Justin Zayat, son of owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat, marveled at what he'd just seen. "I can't believe it happened," he said.

Neither could the scores of others on the scene and watching on television. After something bad had happened to every Triple Crown contender starting with all-time great Spectacular Bid in 1979, this bid for immortality could not have gone more smoothly.

"I had the best feeling going through the first turn," said Espinoza, who fell short of a sweep last year with California Chrome and in 2002 on Baffert's War Emblem. "I was so much more confident this time than the last two."

"He moves so easily that it's like he's going in slow motion. He's an amazing horse, and this is just amazing."

After winning the Kentucky Derby by a length on May 2, American Pharoah cruised to a seven-length victory at the Preakness two weeks later. In the 37 years since the last Triple Crown winner, 13 horses have won the first two legs only to come up short at the Belmont Stakes.

There never was an anxious moment for the 3-5 favorite, who led all the way, eating up ground with his remarkably fluid, efficient stride. The bay son of Pioneerof the Nile made it easy on himself and his trainer, cruising through leisurely fractions. He coasted through a half-mile in 48.83 seconds, 6 furlongs in 1:13.41 and a mile in 1:37.99, turning the grueling 1 1/2 miles into a gallop in the park.

"When I saw those fractions, I loved it," Baffert said. "I told Victor in the paddock, 'He's ready, ride him with extreme confidence,' and he did. They just kept rocking and rolling. What a feeling."

American Pharoah was the first Belmont winner to lead throughout since 38-1 shot Da' Tara, who knocked off Long Island-based Triple Crown hopeful Big Brown in 2008. Pharoah's time of 2:26.65 was the fastest since Baffert's Point Given went in 2:26.40 in 2001. The immortal Secretariat set the world record of 2:24 when he stepped into another dimension with his 31-length romp in 1973.

"I remember watching Secretariat's Belmont with my dad in some VFW hall," Baffert said. The Arizona native could not have imagined that 42 years later he would train a horse that would join Big Red in thoroughbred racing's pantheon.

It was American Pharoah's seventh consecutive win, all in stakes, by a combined margin of 35 3/4 lengths. He paid $3.50 for his seventh win in eight career starts that was worth $800,000 and increased his earnings for Zayat Stables LLC to $4,530,300.

Keen Ice completed the trifecta, the second consecutive year that a long shot trained by Kentuckian Dale Romans finished third. Completing the order of finish were Mubtaahij, Frammento, Madefromlucky, Tale of Verve and Materiality, who stalked Pharoah in second for a mile before backing up.

Baffert had said that after his three disappointments, winning the Triple Crown was a personal quest. Minutes after he achieved it, he stressed it wasn't about him.

"I just feel I have a very special horse, and he's the one that won," he said. "It wasn't me, it was the horse."

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