ELMONT, N.Y. — The tired old chorus never did play Saturday at Belmont Park. The giant old ground never did produce the habitual old sound of a sold-out 90,000 going loud with anticipation and then muffled with disappointment.
Instead, the roar that forms at the top of the stretch did something fresh and unheard for 37 years. It sustained itself. It lasted in full, goose-bump frenzy as American Pharoah, a bay colt with a truncated tail and a floating stride, commanded the race and demanded some space in the books.
He glided toward the Triple Crown.
The roar formed.
He became only the 12th Triple Crown winner in all the grinding springs and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
The roar persisted.
Where 12 other horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but failed in New York across the drought since Affirmed, American Pharoah charged in insuperably by 5
The roar continued. It passed one minute, reached 90 seconds, soared and flared on past two minutes. It drew from people who had felt the past sighs, from people who care deeply about the sport and from people who waited all day for I-was-there memory, then hugged and bounced.
“All I did was just take in the crowd,” said American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert, the 62-year-old veteran of Belmont Stakes excruciation (three previous Triple Crown tries here) and exhilaration (the 11th trainer to win a Triple Crown). “It was thundering, and I was just enjoying the call, the crowd, the noise, everything happening, 37 years, and we’re part of this.”
After the particular decrescendos of Silver Charm (lost in the final strides of 1997), Real Quiet (lost by a nose in 1998) and Smarty Jones (lost in the final furlong of 2004), the 90,000 on a breezy evening witnessed mastery if not suspense. They saw the best horse in a widely fancied 3-year-old crop break to the lead under a Victor Espinoza ride Baffert labeled as one of “extreme confidence.” In the great distance of the backstretch at the 110-year-old track, they watched American Pharoah sustain that lead, perhaps conjuring worries from the memories of tiring horses past. Yet as the stretch began with Frosted bobbing toward American Pharoah, they watched this latest hope only strengthen.
“It’s like driving fast cars, compared to the others, the slower ones,” Espinoza said, already having told NBC on the telecast, “The way he trains. The way he hits the ground. You don’t even feel him.” Baffert called it “that beautiful mode of the way he goes over the ground,” and said, “I just loved every fraction.”
By the time American Pharoah got done his way, his time stood at 2:26.65, comfortably among some bright lights of Belmont lore. His rivals, from second-place Frosted to third-place Keen Ice to fourth-place Mubtaahij, were left behind. As he stood unbeaten after four races on four tracks in eight weeks, his reputation stood primed for duration.
“I really think the name ‘American Pharoah’ will always be remembered,” Baffert said. “He’s the one that did it. We were just passengers.”
“I’m happy for the horse, for the fans and for this man [Baffert],” said Ahmed Zayat, the 52-year-old Egyptian-American owner of American Pharoah who leapt into the sport only 10 years ago.
Five Saturdays prior, American Pharoah had come to the Kentucky Derby as a subject of widespread hope. One year after California Chrome had sprinkled charm across the spring as a son of an $8,000 mare and a $2,500 stallion, then reached the Belmont stretch and wearied, another 3-year-old had wowed the equine intellectuals.
He had traveled around winning and impressing Baffert with an adaptability the trainer labels peerless. After starting off with his lone loss, a fifth-place headache at Del Mar on Aug. 9, he imported some adjustments and won at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Oaklawn in Arkansas. He awed Espinoza on Sept. 3 at the Del Mar Futurity and awed masses April 11 with a whopping eight-length win in the Arkansas Derby.
Well wide and imperfect in the Derby stretch, he persisted to best Firing Line by one and Dortmund by three. Through the mud at the Preakness, he thrived and dominated by seven. By the top of the stretch in the Belmont, Baffert did wonder. “I was prepared for somebody coming because I’ve gone through this so many times,” he said.
Nobody came. Really, nobody much could. “I just dropped the reins, and he just took off,” Espinoza said. The roar began and built. As if lodged in wait for 37 wanting years, it did not ebb for three solid minutes.