After 37 years and more than a dozen near-misses, horse racing finally witnessed the making of a new Triple Crown champion. Affirmed was the last horse to complete the sweep back in 1978. If you did not watch American Pharoah in the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday evening, I will not pretend to understand your priorities, but I forgive you.
Watch the race now, then relive it with me, because basketball season is still 5 months away.
The day did not get off to an auspicious start on Long Island. Standing along the rail at 9:30am, it was cold, windy and raining. That 1 ½ mile oval in front of the grandstand looked wet and mucky; a woman nearby also wearing a cotton sundress gave me a glance of grim commiseration.
The 1/16 pole along the home stretch is the spot where many horses have given up the lead for good, the final win of the elusive trio slipping out of their grasp with the finish line in sight. It is only fitting that the tribute to those 11 horses who triumphed lies in the infield across from this tipping point. The performance at this particular spot defined their legacy, so this is where they are immortalized.
It was bleak and eerily empty in the paddock area. Only the most die-hard horseracing fans were there at this hour, picking the best spots early and guarding them tenaciously for the remainder of the day.
With a Triple Crown on the line last year, more than a hundred thousand people packed in to see California Chrome. No attendance records would be set in 2015. Only 90,000 tickets were made available and all had to be purchased ahead of time. Even if the event had not sold out, no walk-up admission would have been allowed.
After last year's debacle of insufficient food, water and bathroom facilities, NYRA vowed to do better and they did. Though one must wonder if anyone recognized the delicious irony of offering free cholesterol screenings adjacent to the food truck village which featured pastrami sandwiches and chocolate-drenched kettle corn.
Each jewel of the Triple Crown has its own unique personality. The Derby is a spectacle where the air of refinement is part of the experience. It's bourbon, vanity, and cool Kentucky sunshine. Preakness drops the act. Billed as the People's Party, Pimlico's infield lineup embraces the mayhem. Belmont Day is very typically New York, an "it takes all kinds" event. The $15 grandstand admission gets you in the door alongside a wide variety of humanity. Wolf sweatshirts with Velcro sneakers, neon peplum rompers, elastic bottomed cargo sweatpants topped by a linen blazer and more fedoras than should ever be in one place.
There had not been a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. This was true for the majority of those in attendance on Saturday. For most, a singular desire to witness history brought them to the track, even though they rarely follow horse racing.
For others like myself, it meant finally understanding the significance of stories heard over the course of a lifetime about what it is like to be there for a win. My father's photo album of trips with his best friends includes pictures of Secretariat in the paddock, Seattle Slew as well. He was there - he had seen it. As a toddler, he perched me (very safely, for sure) on the rail at Monmouth Park. When Real Quiet was edged out by Victory Gallop in 1998, I was glued to the television.
This was a chance to experience THE moment firsthand so that one day my (future hypothetical) kids can hear about it. It could be decades before we see another. Needless to say, this ticket and many like it will never be cashed.
None of the other horses running the Belmont had survived the same rigorous schedule as American Pharoah. This would be his third race in five weeks, while his challengers had all skipped either the Derby or the Preakness (or both, in the case of Madefromlucky). Four of the eight horses would be piloted by Hall of Fame jockeys. They would be gunning for him.
Last year, California Chrome was simply tired out. When Victor Espinoza told him to go, the horse had nothing left. His Triple Crown hopes were spoiled by Tonalist, who returned on Saturday in the Met Mile, a race won handily by Honor Code.
In the paddock, American Pharoah was cool as a cucumber. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert had some words of advice for his jockey: "He's ready, just ride him with confidence...put him on the lead and go for it." They would have to catch him.
A different kind of business attempted to insert itself into this part of the day, as Zayat Stables had recently signed a contract with Monster energy drinks. Some enterprising marketing folks actually thought that this was a good time to get up close to the horse and take product placement photos. One can only imagine what the usually-affable trainer had to say as he sent them packing, but he did not look pleased.
After former Yankees manager Joe Torre gave the customary "Riders up!" call, NBC made the unpopular decision to send the horses directly out onto the track instead of having them make the customary loop of the walking ring. Nobody at Belmont Park was the least bit concerned with the network's desire to switch coverage to the hockey game on time.
The chorus of loud, angry boos from disappointed people who had been waiting in the hot sun and were denied a chance to see the horses up close was exactly as you would expect from an event held in New York.
Bolting from the paddock to a location in the grandstand where the race would be visible was a superhuman feat. Then the waiting began. Anticipation, nervousness and hope mixed together. Was this the horse? Could this be the year? The post parade seemed interminable.
When the field was finally loaded into the starting gate, the crowd was holding its collective breath.
American Pharoah went out to an early lead. Those unfamiliar with past installments of the race were thrilled to see their superstar-elect in front; people who knew the history looked tense, undoubtedly envisioning one of the dozen times since 1978 that Belmont's deep, sandy 1 ½ mile course was the undoing of a Triple Crown hopeful.
Materiality was less than a length back and Frosted had been keeping pace, but still nobody was challenging his lead through the grueling backstretch. When Victor Espinoza asked for more coming through the far turn, his horse answered. American Pharoah was flying, accelerating as the field fell back.
By the time American Pharoah rounded the clubhouse turn with a two length lead, the sounds of the people had fully drowned out the track announcer. The crowd erupted and the grandstand was shaking. You could literally feel it as the inevitability of his victory grew. Even if you couldn't see the track, that kind of rippling crescendo along the Grandstand only meant one thing.
The roar had quieted last year in the final eighth when it became clear that California Chrome was not going to win. This year, the opposite. The stretch at Belmont is a mammoth 1,097 feet long and the crowd only kept getting louder as he pulled away and crossed the finish. Being immersed in it was both deafening and sublime.
That level of volume and elation was sustained through the victory lap that American Pharoah took all along the rail where his adoring fans were assembled. This was a coronation. Bob Baffert had been denied with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem. Victor Espinoza had seen two Triple Crown chances slip away, aboard War Emblem and California Chrome. American Pharoah had everybody picking against him. None of that mattered any more. They had finally won.
The reigning champ entered the Winner's Circle. He soaked up the attention and attempted to eat his flowers. In 2014, the post-race narrative questioned whether the three race series was impossible for modern horses, whether a multi-decade drought was hurting the sport and expanding the timeline could make it more easily accomplished. This year's Triple Crown win was met with equally pessimistic reaction, predicting that with the memory so fresh nobody will be interested next year. That apathy has a life span of one year - maybe two. The public has a short memory. This is not an easy feat. There will be another drought and the mystique will return. People got a taste of the excitement today. They'll want to see more.
Does American Pharoah belong in the conversation with storied horses of generations past? Is he worthy? In a year boasting the strongest crop of 3 year-olds in recent history, he has earned that consideration. The argument going into the first Saturday in May was that a cruising 8-length victory in the Arkansas Derby meant an untested horse.
In the Kentucky Derby, he fought off a huge field and overcame a wide trip to muscle out a single-length win. Only two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, thunder and pouring rain did not deter him as he scored a commanding victory over a sloppy surface that his peers could not handle. This past Saturday he went wire-to-wire over a well-rested field that matched the largest any Triple Crown victor has ever faced, and he did it in an authoritative way, crossing the finish line 5 ½ lengths ahead of Frosted.
American Pharoah's final time of 2:26.65 is also the second fastest of any Triple Crown winner - only the great Secretariat was faster. On Saturday, AP's final ¼ mile was faster than his first ¼ mile...and it was faster than Secretariat's. That in no way makes him superior; Big Red's otherworldly 31 length victory back in 1973 will likely never be matched. There is no method to directly compare American Pharoah's performance to those of previous champions. What it should do is give pause to any critics who would deny him a seat at the table.
He has done everything that was asked of him. He has earned his place among legends.
All Hail Pharoah. Now pretty please come to New Jersey for the Haskell?