BELMONT, N.Y. — American Pharoah’s bay coat turned almost black with sweat from effort, yet in full stride he left such an impression of ease that he appeared to hover and flutter over the deep sand of Belmont Park. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, rode such a perfect race he seemed almost motionless until he crossed the finish line, when he became a flash of turquoise silk, writhing with joy until he threatened to come out of the saddle on his victory lap.
The first Triple Crown winner in 37 years will be remembered for that signature sense of supple ease, the limber mobility that made something so difficult seem so natural. His 5
“As soon as I sit in the saddle, it was such power,” Espinoza said.
How long can 90,000 people scream with their mouths wide open? Several minutes-worth. That’s what racing history sounded like, a sustained throbbing wave for the horse, jockey and trainer. It built down the backstretch and then hit a sustained peak as he crossed the finish line. “All I did was just take in the crowd,” Baffert said. “It was thundering.”
On 12 previous occasions since 1978, horses had come to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and all of them had failed. Baffert, at 62 with a sweep of hair white as sea foam, had trained three of those failures. “It’s caused me a lot of misery,” he said.
Good horses, maybe even great horses, had been defeated by the combination of Belmont’s sinking ankle-deep sand, the mile-and-a-half distance that made legs heavy and a fresh field of horses who had sat out the Preakness and were more rested. All of racing wondered whether the Triple Crown just wasn’t achievable anymore — maybe the horses were too finely bred.
Even American Pharoah’s connections weren’t sure it could be done — they only hoped it could. No one was more deeply experienced in Triple Crown disappointment than Baffert. He had been here with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. On those occasions, he had been full of confidence only to have his heart crushed. This time, every public statement was an attempt to manage expectations.
“The horse is doing well,” he said, “but we still have to get around there.”
Baffert nursed his horse carefully all week; American Pharaoh’s leg wraps were white and sumptuous enough for Cleopatra. On the afternoon of the race, the barn was pin-drop quiet and a semi-fortress. A phalanx of black Escalades formed a barrier in front, and the green metal-siding doors were pulled tightly shut to prevent cameras from disrupting the horse’s peace.
At other barns, doors stood open and activity was evident: Laundry flapped on lines, and grooms hosed down horses. But at American Pharaoh’s stable, the only action was an occasional breeze ruffling the geraniums.
Gawkers stood outside staring at nothing much, catching an occasional glimpse of a stablehand walking a brown-faced creature in a slow circle.
As Espinoza said, “A lot of things can go wrong in a tenth of a second.”
There just were so many odds, numbers and other factors working against the horse. American Pharoah was racing for the fourth time in eight weeks. No other horse in the field had run in both legs of the Triple Crown. The last nine Belmont winners had skipped the Preakness.
“We’ll just get him ready, and if he’s great, he’ll get it done,” Baffert said, almost shrugging.
Baffert thought he had great horses before — and he wasn’t wrong. But how to tell the indefinable difference between a great horse and an all-time immortal who belongs in the select group of Triple Crown winners? American Pharoah’s people only knew that the horse had an “it” factor.
According to Espinoza, what gave them all belief was that ease in his step, “The way he moves,” Espinoza said. “It really don’t feel like he goes fast. It feels like slow motion, but he’s passing other horses.”
As post time approached, the sense of occasion steadily built, and maybe American Pharoah sensed it despite Baffert’s efforts to keep him quiet. If nothing else, surely the horse could smell the commotion. The air was a mix of Macanudo cigar smoke, grill fumes, mustard and spirits, along with sweet hay and other things that ferment at a track.
He was cool in the paddock, still as a statue. Baffert studied him and told Espinoza: “He’s ready. Go ahead and ride him with confidence. Put him on the lead and go for it, and if he doesn’t make it, don’t worry about it.”
When American Pharoah got on to the track, he began to throw his head around and dodge sideways, even thrusting his mouth at the lead pony. He was antsy. His owner, Ahmed Zayat, turned to his wife. “Get ready to be the owner of the Triple Crown winner,” he said.
Espinoza knew before they even got in the gate he had the horse. “Warming up, he was just class, all class,” he said. By the first turn, “It was the best feeling I ever had,” the jockey said.
As they turned for home, Baffert prepared himself — he had seen his horses lead the Belmont before only to be caught and passed. But by the eight pole, Baffert relaxed. “Once Victor got him in the clear and got him in that beautiful mode of the way he just goes over the ground, I just loved every fraction,” he said.
Finally, here was the horse with the right build and stride and temperament to join the immortal 11 others. He had another quality, too, something else that seemed to slide so naturally into racing history.
“It’s a great name,” Baffert said.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.