American Pharoah turns a guy from Nogales, Arizona into a legend

Pat Forde

ELMONT, N.Y. – American Pharoah used 306 strides to enter thoroughbred racing immortality.

Three hundred six mesmerizing, massive strides to win the Belmont Stakes Saturday and put a smashing end to a 37-year Triple Crown drought. He is royalty now, the 12th horse ever to accomplish one of the most difficult feats in sport. His gritty Kentucky Derby victory and rain-soaked Preakness waltz has now been capped off with an authoritative, 5½-length victory in the race called "The Test of a Champion."

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Three hundred six fluid, flowing strides to accomplish a feat many people (myself included) thought was impossible for the modern thoroughbred. To slay the 1½-mile Belmont dragon that has tormented the last 12 horses to race here with a shot at history. To lift up a downtrodden sport all by himself.

Three hundred six balletic, beautiful strides to detonate a celebratory roar that sounded more like Baton Rouge on an autumn Saturday night than a racetrack. To trigger a noise the likes of which the sport hadn't heard in how long? Maybe not since Secretariat himself set the bar for legendary brilliance here 42 years ago.

Bob Baffert holds up the Triple Crown Trophy with his son, Bode, and wife Jill. (AP)
Bob Baffert holds up the Triple Crown Trophy with his son, Bode, and wife Jill. (AP)

The sight of American Pharoah drawing off from his pursuers in the stretch, casting a shadow larger than himself on the ground in the early New York evening, was so stirring and so cathartic that the few people in the crowd of 90,000 who were not screaming were actually in tears. Emotions flowed around the old grandstand, and around the nation.

This is how moving horse racing can be.

"This is going to be the moment," trainer Bob Baffert said. "I just – we'll never forget this."

Nobody who was here will forget it. From 93-year-old Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat who keeps showing up here to see if there is a worthy heir, to 10-year-old Bode Baffert, overjoyed at his father's side.

The racing gods owed Baffert this moment. Nobody in the annals of the sport had been dealt more Triple Crown heartache than the 62-year-old Baffert, whose meteoric rise from a quarter horse trainer from the border town of Nogales, Ariz., is one of the most significant developments in the sport over the last 20 years.

Three times previously, Baffert had come here with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Three times he left a beaten man. His Silver Charm had been passed in deep stretch in 1997; Real Quiet was nipped by inches at the wire a year later ("Brutal," he said); War Emblem stumbled at the start and was doomed in 2002. In 2001 he also had the best horse, Point Given, but a suicidal pace cooked him in the Kentucky Derby and rendered his Preakness and Belmont victories consolation prizes.

After all those nightmares, this was a dreamscape unfolding before him. Everything transpired perfectly.

[Slideshow: Celebrities at the Derby]

Sixty-six minutes prior to post, American Pharoah was led out of Barn 3 for his traditional pre-race bath. His light-brown coat glistened and muscles rippled.

"He was a picture," Baffert said. "He looked so shiny. I said to Jimmy [Barnes, his assistant trainer], 'I hate to bathe him, he looks so shiny.' "

After the bath, American Pharoah was led to Barn 4 to join the rest of the eight-horse field in assembling before walking to the paddock. While the colt walked the shedrow, Baffert did what he often does to calm his nerves – found a familiar face in the crowd and started talking.

At one point during the small talk, Bode Baffert looked up at his dad and said, "If we win, you'll finally be happy after Real Quiet."

Bob looked at his son and said, "We're already happy."

The walk to the paddock began quietly enough – a fist bump here, a hand slap there from Baffert to a fan leaning over the railing. Then the massive, roiling throng in the paddock area amped up the atmosphere – security struggled to keep everyone out of the way, and a cop blowing his whistle to get people to step back from the walking ring drew the ire of the trainer. (American Pharoah is sensitive to noise, which is why he races with ear plugs.)

Despite the tumult, confidence permeated the American Pharoah camp. Owner Ahmed Zayat hugged his wife, Joanne, in the paddock and said into her ear, "He is doing very well. He is ready to fire."

Yet the very first moment of the race was an awkward one for the 3-5 favorite. Jockey Victor Espinoza said American Pharoah had shifted his weight onto his back feet when the gate opened, and he did not get away with complete alacrity.

Still, it was far better than the disastrous start Espinoza and War Emblem had 13 years earlier. The race was over then; this time, it took just a stride before American Pharoah was in hand and able to move nimbly to the lead and on the rail. That was the plan, as Baffert instructed Espinoza before the race: "Ride him with extreme confidence, put him on the lead, go for it."

With American Pharoah at a comfortable cruising speed, Espinoza coolly played traffic cop on the front end. In a 1½-mile marathon, he needed the pace to be moderate and he kept it there. As his horse moved around the first turn, Baffert kept his arms folded across his chest in the grandstand but loved what he saw.

"When I saw his ears go forward, I went, 'Ooooh, this is too good,' " Baffert said. "… On the first turn, it was over."

That was easy to say in hindsight, but Baffert has been dealt so much late-race dejection in the home stretch here that he took nothing for granted in real time.

American Pharoah first dispatched Materiality when that horse loomed along his outside shoulder. Then it was Frosted, the second choice, who wheeled outside and looked for a few moments like he might have the kick to make it a stretch duel.

"Turning for home, I was prepared for somebody coming because I've gone through this so many times," Baffert said. "I was just hoping for once, I could just tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen."

It was, indeed, going to happen. American Pharoah was not being reeled in; he was pulling away. It was finally going to happen.

"All I did was just take in the crowd," Baffert said.

Victor Espinoza reacts to the crowd after guiding American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown. (AP)
Victor Espinoza reacts to the crowd after guiding American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown. (AP)

The noise was incredible – decades of pent-up frustration alchemized into pure elation. Virtually everyone was pulling for the same result – to see history, to witness greatness – and here it came, galloping majestically down the stretch before their eyes.

"I don't even have words to describe it," said Baffert's wife, Jill. "You win the Derby, and you don't dare to ask for anything more. But then he wins the Preakness, and you start to think, 'Could it be?' "

It could.

American Pharoah was too strong for the three-races-in-five-weeks grind to catch up with him, as it had so many other times to lesser horses. He was too fast for his more rested competitors to chase down. He was too consistent to throw in a bad performance at precisely the wrong time.

"Too good," trainer Todd Pletcher, who had Materiality and Madefromlucky in the race, said as he left the grandstand after congratulating Baffert.

In the final strides, Baffert pumped his right fist as Jill burst into tears and embraced him. Bode exulted at his side. Bernie Schiappa, Baffert's eternal sidekick at the big races, buried his face in his hands and cried.

If it was ever going to happen, it had to be Baffert. He is the premier trainer in the sport, and he finally got the dream horse who he conditioned into a legend.

"Nobody can make a slow horse a fast horse," Zayat said. "But it's a trainer who cares who can develop a horse. … It takes a special trainer."

After that special trainer's press conference was over, Baffert turned around and saw a replay of the race on the big screen in the Belmont theater room. Now, finally, he could take it in and soak in the glory.

"Can you believe this s---?" he said to me. "This is awesome. … It's not supposed to happen. I came from the quarter horses. I can't believe I came from Nogales, Arizona, to win the Triple Crown."

Believe it. American Pharoah, the newest equine immortal, made it happen in 306 magical strides.


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