American Pharoah becomes first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown
(NY Times) BELMONT, N.Y. – Everyone knows there is no cheering in the press box, and crying is frowned upon as well. Both rules were violated as American Pharoah thundered down the stretch and into the record books, setting off a cathartic celebration at Belmont Park and beyond among those who appreciate racehorses.
American Pharoah is just the 12th Triple Crownchampion and the first since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes 37 years ago. It was a perfect moment that the sport had been longing for, and it was clear that the colt’s owner, Ahmed Zayat; his trainer, Bob Baffert; and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, understood that.
In the wake of the achievement, Zayat and Baffert were gracious and insistent on deflecting attention away from themselves and onto American Pharoah.
“He’s the one that won — it wasn’t me,” Baffert said, fighting back tears moments after the victory. “It was the horse.”
In the post race news conference, a giddy Espinoza continued to repeat what he had said shortly after crossing the finish line: “Wow! Just, wow!”
So now what? On Sunday, American Pharoah was flown back to Louisville, Ky., to begin a well-earned vacation at Churchill Downs. The Ireland-based Coolmore has purchased the stallion rights for American Pharoah to stand at Ashford Stud in Kentucky, but Zayat said he intended to race his colt for at least the rest of the year.
“It is my genuine desire, as someone who loves horses, as a fan, to race him as long as I possibly could,” he said. “At least — at least — until he finishes as a 3-year-old. I take this very responsibly. I think it’s a huge, huge honor and privilege, and we owe it to the sport to do the right thing.”
In the days and weeks ahead, there will be a great deal of talk about whether a new Triple Crown champion will give horse racing a badly needed shot in the arm.
It already has, and it will continue to do so in the short term. The news of American Pharoah’s triumph resonated on websites and in newspapers globally, was celebrated on sports channels and network television, and was dissected and relived on radio talk shows.
It was not solely the fact that a Triple Crown sweep had been a long time coming that attracted the attention of casual sports fans — it was also how American Pharoah did it. He showed grit in a determined stretch duel to win the Derby, brilliance in running away with the Preakness and dominance in his five-and-a-half-length Belmont victory.
“I’ve never had a horse like that, and I’ve never seen a horse run like that,” Baffert said. “Every time he runs, he shows me something we’ve never seen.”
Even the most casual sports fan recognizes and is moved by sublime athletic achievement. During the past five weeks, American Pharoah has reminded them what an ethereal creature a thoroughbred is and how beautiful it is in full flight.
The reason that nearly four decades had passed, in which 12 other horses failed to pass the mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion, as the Belmont is known, is because it is hard. Five weeks, three long races and three different cities take a lot out of a horse. There are also fresh horses to face, first in Baltimore, then in New York.
In recent years, there has been talk of changing the Triple Crown format, leaving a month or even six weeks between races.
“For a while, I was starting to think maybe it’s never going to happen,” Baffert said. “It’s changed, it’s too tough — maybe it’s the breed. It’s not the breed. You just have to wait for these superior horses to come around. They don’t come around that often.”
Like it or not, horse racing is part of the American character. It predates baseball and is the only sport that was ever conducted out of the White House. In the early 1800s, President Andrew Jackson ran a stable from there.
It is on the decline mostly because of its own doing. Horse racing lacks uniform drug regulation and meaningful penalties for cheaters. The racetracks themselves treat their customers badly.
But when a John Henry or a Cigar, a Zenyatta or a Rachel Alexandra comes along, America gets excited and wants to watch the horse run. American Pharoah is not going to save horse racing, but if he can attract new fans to the racetrack to watch him, some might fall for the sport.
It happens; I know.
So far, that seems to be the plan for American Pharoah, as long as he stays healthy. Baffert said he was looking at either the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey on Aug. 2 or the Jim Dandy Stakes in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Aug. 1 for the colt’s next start. He also indicated that American Pharoah might try older horses for the first time in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, near San Diego, on Aug. 22.
The $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, this year at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 31 seems like the most likely place for American Pharoah to end his career. It was first run in 1984, and if American Pharoah happened to win it, he would be something of a first.
How about sweeping horse racing’s grand slam?
Baffert, too, feels beholden to show off his Triple Crown champion. But he also said that the health and the reputation of American Pharoah were his first responsibility.
He said he had seen horses return after contending for the Triple Crown and “get beat, and I don’t want to see that.”
He added, “I want to make sure that when you see him out there, you can feel good about it.”
So do a lot of people.