ELMONT, N.Y. – American Pharoah accomplished one of the rare feats in sport Saturday, becoming the first horse in 37 years and just the 12th horse ever to win the Triple Crown.
The heavily favored colt completed the quest by running away from seven rivals in the Belmont Stakes, three weeks after a rain-soaked dash in the Preakness and five weeks after a gritty, stretch-duel victory in the Kentucky Derby.
American Pharoah's name now moves into the history books alongside equine immortals like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Citation and War Admiral. And horse racing finally has the superstar it has hungered for – a fluid athlete with a massive stride who seems to float over the ground.
The last horse to win all three of North America's biggest races was Affirmed in 1978. Since then, 13 horses have come to this historic track having won the first two legs of the Crown. All had failed (with I'll Have Another scratched prior to the 2012 running), raising doubts whether the quest was still attainable for the modern thoroughbred.
In front of a roaring crowd, American Pharoah eradicated those doubts in stirring fashion, going wire-to-wire at the Belmont, beating second-place finisher Frosted by 5½ lengths.
Pharoah didn't break well from the gate, but it didn't matter. Jockey Victor Espinoza steered him to the lead, which he never relinquished.
As he came down the stretch, American Pharoah never slowed, widening his lead to win going away in a time of 2:26.65 – the quickest Belmont time since 2001.
The result gave triumphant closure to trainer Bob Baffert's 18-year quest to win the Triple Crown. Three times previously, he had won the Derby and Preakness only to encounter Belmont heartbreak. In 1997, his Silver Charm was passed in deep stretch. In '98, Real Quiet was nipped at the wire. And in 2002, front-running War Emblem stumbled leaving the gate and was never a factor.
Now the 62-year-old Californian finally has his Triple.
It also marked a breakthrough for the 43-year-old Espinoza in his third stab at winning the Triple Crown. Espinoza had been the rider on War Emblem, and on California Chrome last year. He is the first native of Mexico to win the Triple Crown.
[Slideshow: American Pharoah's Triple Crown journey]
And it was a triumph for American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, who in less than a decade has become one of the most impactful owners in thoroughbred racing. The 52-year-old Egyptian immigrant had finished second in four Triple Crown races before this year – three times in the Derby (2009, '11 and '12) and once in the Belmont (‘12).
One of Zayat's Derby runner-ups, Pioneerof The Nile, is the sire of American Pharoah. The Zayat homebred established himself as a special horse very quickly.
American Pharoah finished fifth in his debut race as a 2-year-old last August, and has been simply brilliant ever since. This was his seventh straight victory at six different racetracks.
After dominating the competition in Arkansas in March and April, American Pharoah came to Kentucky as the Derby favorite. It took a vigorous ride by Espinoza to budge Pharoah past Firing Line and Dortmund in the stretch at Churchill Downs, but the colt showed his tenacity in winning the roses. He then came back two weeks later and obliterated the field in the Preakness, dancing over a sloppy track to set the stage for this history-making Belmont triumph.
Now he is a racing immortal with the other Triple Crown winners: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed.
It took 37 years for a new horse to join the sport's most selective fraternity. American Pharoah is a worthy inclusion.