For 37 years the gates to racing's pantheon have remained shut, rusted with time, leaving a number of fallen heroes strewn along its steps.
But this time there were no heartbreaking nose defeats, no safety pins, no horse suffering a fractured leg in the stretch, no bent shoes, no getting stepped on by another horse at the start, no horse being eased at the quarter pole for no apparent reason, no stumbling badly coming out of the gate, no injuries and subsequent defections the day before the race, no jockeys ganging up on the favorite, no sloppy track, no Salix and steroid controversies, no horses getting spooked by the starter on the track or a cameraman in the gate, and no horses getting caught in the final yards.
This time there was nothing that could stop the irresistible force known as American Pharoah and his date with destiny.
We salute all those who tried and failed since 1978. But, finally, we hail a conquering hero who has broken through those hallowed gates and stepped into immortality.
One odd twist came from a comment made after last year's Belmont Stakes (G1) by California Chrome 's co-owner Steve Coburn, angry and disgruntled after being defeated by a fresh horse (Tonalist ) in his Triple Crown attempt.
"I'm 61 years old and I'll never in my lifetime see another Triple Crown winner because of the way they do this," Coburn said. Apparently the Triple Crown gods were listening and having a good laugh over that one.
Nearly four decades of pent up disappointment and frustration spilled onto the Belmont Park track June 6, where American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza took a well-deserved victory lap after winning the Belmont Stakes presented by DraftKings by 5 1/2 glorious lengths. They were greeted by a wave of cheers that rose to a deafening crescendo, as people in the packed grandstand hugged, kissed, and cried.
The waiting was over, as new generations of racing fans and even those with only a casual interest in the sport finally experienced the emotions that come with witnessing a Triple Crown winner.
In the clubhouse, Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, and Patrice Wolfson, owner of the last Triple Crown winner Affirmed, sat in adjoining boxes and welcomed a new member to racing's most exclusive fraternity, even though both seemed protective of their own horses while cognizant that another had infiltrated that sacred triumvirate of the '70s after so many years.
Both used the exact same short-but-sweet words to describe their feelings: "I'm happy for racing."
When Chenery, now 93, was told that American Pharoah had run one of the fastest Belmonts in history (2:26.55), she responded in quick fashion, "Well, not fast enough," in reference to Secretariat's other worldly time of 2:24.
Watching the Belmont from home was Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
"I think it's great," Turner said regarding the long drought finally being over. "If we didn't get it done right about now, it would have hurt racing's fan base. You couldn't have held the public's attention much longer. I thought American Pharoah ran the best race of his life and improved with every race through the Triple Crown."
Measured in fifths of a second, American Pharoah's time of 2:26 3/5 was the co-fifth fastest Belmont of all time. While none of those who ran as fast or faster came home their final quarter better than :24 4/5, American Pharoah, after leading every step of the way, not only came home his final quarter in :24 1/5, but came home his final two quarters in the exact same time.
But the 2015 Belmont Stakes was not about statistics. It was about emotion, and Belmont Park was rocked with an emotion not seen or felt in years as fans and horsemen marveled at what had just transpired and what they had longed to witness for so many years.
Belmont day began with an unwelcomed surprise, as a steady—and at times heavy—rain fell on Belmont Park. The inside portion of the track was sealed early, with cones being placed about five paths out from the rail. When trainer Kiaran McLaughlin received a report on the track condition, he opted to send Frosted to the training track for his race day training.
Behind Barn 8 were four large RV vehicles, providing a compound-like atmosphere for American Pharoah's owner Ahmed Zayat and his family. Confident all week, Zayat admitted he was concerned for the first time because of the weather and the track condition.
At around 10 a.m., Zayat, who is deeply religious and cannot drive on Saturdays, stood at the front end of the RV reciting the Sabbath prayer. In his own way, he no doubt was also praying for a safe and clean trip for all the horses.
What Zayat didn't realize, or wouldn't let himself realize, was that the racing gods had already reserved a place for American Pharoah in the history books and that they would soon bring a pleasant breeze and bright sunshine to help dry out the track. Everything was now in place for a historic afternoon.
Zayat felt somewhat relieved when he was told that jockey Victor Espinoza would be riding the Baffert-trained Sky Kingdom in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Invitational Stakes (G2) to get a feel for the distance and see how the track was playing.
"I didn't know that," Zayat said. "I love it. Now I'm feeling a little better."
Zayat on this morning was again confronted with an unflattering story in the New York Times (this time on the front page) titled, "Ahmed Zayat's Journey: Bankruptcy and Big Bets," as well as a TMZ-like front page story in the New York Post on Victor Espinoza's personal affairs. Well-timed media ambushes such as these had become commonplace for Zayat since the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
But Zayat had more important things on his mind, and he was trying to think only positive thoughts. He had recently found out a lawsuit against him that had triggered so much unfavorable publicity had been dismissed by a federal judge, and he had just donated $100,000 to the Belmont Child Care Association. So the negative energy that had invaded the euphoria of this once-in-a-lifetime journey had dissipated and he and his family could now focus on the fairy tale ending about to unfold.
"We're on the doorstep of making history," Zayat said. "With us being in this game since only 2006, it is amazing for my family to be having this humbling experience."
As with the previous 11 Triple Crown winners, it is ultimately about the horse.
"Thank God this horse has not had a single hiccup," he said. "We couldn't afford to have even one. And what's scary is, this horse is getting better. He is more intelligent, and he loves what he does. He's the definition of a Thoroughbred. It's how majestically they move."
As if on cue, there was American Pharoah shown galloping on TVG. "Look at him; we're talking about him right now," Zayat said. "Look at his ears, pricked and happy. His coat, his sheer energy ... it sounds like I'm making love to somebody. If he wins the Triple Crown, in 10 years everybody will remember American Pharoah; they won't care about the owner."
Affirmed's owner Louis Wolfson had spent nine months in a federal prison for conspiracy and illegal stock sales, and his daughter Marsha reached out to Zayat's wife, Joanne.
"She called me and said, 'Listen, people tortured my father all through the Triple Crown campaign,' " Joanne said. 'They wrote horrible things about him. I just want you to make sure you enjoy the moment. Don't let the bad guys get involved and ruin it for you.' "
In 2008 Zayat sent out his first two Kentucky Derby starters in Z Fortune and Z Humor and the following year, Pioneerof the Nile , a colt he owned and bred. Pioneerof the Nile briefly took the lead in the upper stretch, only to finish second to the shocking winner Mine That Bird. Later that year, sitting in his office, Zayat said, "To be honest, in my mind, I experienced winning the Derby for about 10 seconds. That feeling is so cemented in my core that, oh, my God, I want to taste it again."
Not only would he taste it again, following two more seconds, but it would be with Pioneerof the Nile's homebred son, who gave Zayat his garland of roses, and added the garland of Black-Eyed Susans, and the garland of carnations, and with it the coveted Triple Crown trophy.
American Pharoah didn't arrive at Belmont Park until the Tuesday before the Belmont. Only seven others would line up against him, with opposing trainers admitting, if the real American Pharoah shows up and handles the 1 1/2 miles, they were all running for second.
"He's a very special horse," said Mike de Kock, trainer of Mubtaahij. "He's got an action you rarely see in a horse. It's almost like he's moving on a monorail. At the end of the day, I'm a racing fan, and I know everyone says this is the year every year. But I've got to be honest, I've watched a lot of American racing and I've watched a lot of them go for the Triple Crown, and I haven't seen one as good as this. This horse moves across the ground like few horses do. He has perfect action and he doesn't drift left or right ... just bang and he's gone."
De Kock's assistant, Trevor Brown, called American Pharoah "a machine. He has the most amazing action and cruising speed I've ever seen."
What made American Pharoah different from all the others who have attempted to sweep the Triple Crown was that he fit the profile of the vast majority of Triple Crown winners—2-year-old champion, the ability to win the Belmont on the lead, and having a trainer who had already won the Belmont. He checked off every box.
Through it all Zayat had to persevere despite a series of personal attacks, which detracted from the joy he should have been experiencing.
"In the real world I should be happy, excited, blessed, and living the days," he said 11 days before the Belmont. "I just won the Kentucky Derby ... I just won the Preakness ... we might be making history in 11 days ... my horse is thriving; he's putting on weight ... his demeanor is fantastic ... Baffert has never felt any better ... everybody I've known and not known in the last 25 years has either called or reached out to me to say they're so proud of me and my horse and are so excited for us.
"But, and it's a big but, somebody is on a mission to ruin it for me, for my family, and the sport. Honestly, I can get over it; I can rise above it, and I can do as Bob Baffert advises, which is to just let it die; that nobody cares. But I can't, I just can't. God forbid, I'm not that arrogant to say I'm a perfect person, but I am a person who has lived his life honorably, did what was right, had a value system, and raised a good family. I worked very hard for my money. I come from a wealthy family, but I've never taken a nickel from them. I've earned my praises from the business side as well as the horse side. I don't have any skeletons in my closet, and whatever is being thrown in my face and made up is nothing but unbelievable lies."
Each day Baffert would get reports from longtime assistant Jimmy Barnes, who couldn't believe how well American Pharoah came out of the Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Barnes said American Pharoah got fit in the Derby, and the Preakness was basically a breeze. His confidence rubbed off on all those close to the horse.
"I kept calling Bob and saying, 'We're alright, man. This horse is fresh. The race took nothing out of him,' " Barnes said.
Barnes has been as close to American Pharoah as anyone else, and according to his wife, Dana, a longtime exercise rider for Baffert, he told her in January that this horse was going to win the Triple Crown.
Belmont morning changed to a beautiful, sunny day with temperatures in the 70s by late afternoon. You could feel the energy and the excitement in the crowd as people jammed the apron shoulder to shoulder in a mass of humanity.
The race itself can be described simply and quickly. American Pharoah went right to the lead, tracked by Materiality, and set steady fractions of :24.06 and :48.83, with a half-dozen lengths separating the entire field. When the six-furlong fraction of 1:13.41 flashed on the tote board, it became obvious a Triple Crown sweep was within American Pharoah's grasp.
Mubtaahij made a slight threatening move passing the five-sixteenths pole, with Frosted also on the move. But American Pharoah's ears were straight up as usual, and Espinoza still hadn't asked him because he was doing it all on his own.
American Pharoah gave his typical initial surge and lead by 2 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole, then just kept widening his margin to the wire. The 12 furlongs, like everything else with this colt, was a mere cakewalk. Thirteen times before in the past 37 years, the crowd went silent as the runners passed the finish line. This time they were able to cheer, scream, and salute racing's newest hero down the stretch, just as they had with Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.
Frosted ran another bang-up race to finish second, two lengths ahead of Keen Ice , who just got up to nip Mubtaahij for third.
Wherever you looked, people were celebrating. They knew they had witnessed something special and let their emotions pour out.
Tonja Terranova, who with her husband, had cared for so many of Baffert's horses over the years, could hardly speak, as the tears welled up.
"I can't even say how I'm feeling right now," she said. "I'm so happy for Bob and Jimmy and the Zayats. They've been amazing to us. I got to walk (American Pharoah) for a few minutes yesterday and it was like the highlight of my life. I'm just overjoyed. The only thing is, I'm never going to be able to fill that stall again. This horse is just amazing day in and day out. In the four days since he got off the van, he posed and trained and ate and slept and posed and trained and ate and slept."
But as John Terranova added, "He knows when it's time to run. He never had an anxious moment."
"I told Jimmy he's gained weight since I saw him in Kentucky and he said he has," Tonja said. "He just looked amazing. I really think this is going to open up the sport again. Everybody, even those who don't follow the sport, was excited. I think of all that Bob has gone through, and all the heartbreaks. He's so deserving beyond words."
For Baffert it was all about his family, who so often have run the gamut of emotions in major stakes, from the heartbreaking defeats to the ultimate thrills that come with a classic victory.
"It's very emotional for me," he said. "Jill carries a lot of the weight in the house because she knows how disappointed being a horse trainer can be; the highs and lows and she keeps me going. And Bode, who is so passionate, just like Jill. I could tell the last couple of days, just by the way Jill and Bode were a little bit on edge. We knew something big was coming up, and Bode was prepared. You have to prepare yourself for disappointment; otherwise, it will wear on you. And it was all I could think about today from the time I woke up. I even forgot to take my heart medication this morning. I thought, 'Oh, man.' So I had to keep cool today.
"What a feeling. It's probably going to take a few days to sink in because I had my kids here and everybody got to enjoy it. Savannah, I was holding her in my arms when she was 4 years old for Real Quiet and luckily she doesn't remember that. But this is going to be the moment we'll never forget."
With his trepidations about the weather gone, Zayat again had exuded confidence just prior to the race.
"I looked at my wife in the post parade and I told her, 'Get ready to be the owner of the 12th Triple Crown winner,' " he said. "He looked unbelievable—focused and full of energy. It's not about any of us, and I can sit here for hours and praise the brilliant job that Bob, Victor, and the team have done. But at this juncture it's about defining the greatness of American Pharoah."
As American Pharoah left the test barn to head back to Barn 1—the home of 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault—Nena Moss, owner of fifth-place finisher Frammento, was standing nearby, and like everyone else, was caught up in the moment.
"I'm just so honored and privileged to have been a part of this," she said.
As night fell on Belmont Park, Baffert and Jill finally made their way back to the barn. It was hours after the race, and Jill still was misty-eyed.
"This horse had the weight of the world on his shoulders because there's so much going on in the world right now and people needed something to hope for and believe in," she said. "It transcended racing. I could show you all the texts I've gotten all week from people who don't really have an interest in racing, but just were hoping. Knowing what Bob has been through, this is the happiest moment of our lives and it has not settled in yet.
"When we get back home and watch the race and hear the call and see the horse, there's going to be a lot of emotion there. It's been amazing to be part of it. I wanted to hear the crowd, but I was so in my own moment. It was like holding your baby and wanting to remember what the baby felt like in your arms. That's why I can't wait to go back home and just listen. This horse knows it. It's all about him. It's not about anybody but him. He did it and he's so amazing."
Baffert agreed. "American Pharoah is the one that's done all the heavy lifting," he said. "I've just been a passenger and kept out of his way. I had a feeling he was this good, but I was afraid to get too excited about him. I wasn't really prepared for the emotions, but I can say one thing. This is the first time I've come to a Triple Crown and didn't get one bit of heckling. Everybody was behind this horse. That tells me what kind of horse everybody thinks he is. Just listening to the crowd that last hundred yards was amazing. I'll probably never feel or experience something like that ever again. He showed today what a superhorse he is. My name may be on the trophy, but I owe everything to my team.
"We've had nothing but positive energy all the way through this.
"When he took off from Frosted, I said, 'Wow, this is really happening; it's gonna happen.' And I just wasn't emotionally prepared for it. At that point I was just in awe of the horse and thought, 'What a gift from God he is.' In those last hundred yards I thought of Bob Lewis (owner of Silver Charm) and Mike Pegram (owner of Real Quiet) and The Thoroughbred Corp. (owner of War Emblem), and now to actually see it happen was amazing. It hasn't sunk in yet that I actually won the Triple Crown."
At the barn American Pharoah never left the front of his stall, as Baffert and his family, Espinoza, and dozens of visitors took turns posing for pictures and petting him, while photographing him with the Triple Crown trophy. When Jill walked up to his stall, she hugged him tightly and leaned her head against his neck, remaining in that position for about 30 seconds. Through it all the horse never once seemed bothered and accepted all the petting and hugging and attention as if actually enjoying it. He remained virtually motionless as Baffert, Jill, and all of Baffert's children posed with him for a family portrait. Earlier, in the winner's circle photo, he never turned a hair despite being engulfed by a mass of humanity that could have proved dangerous with another horse.
This brought to an end one of the most magical and exhilarating days of racing ever—and certainly one of the most emotional.
After the race, TV analyst and longtime jockey Richard Migliore, said, "How come I feel like I want to cry?"
The answer is simple, according to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote, "Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears."
And the beauty witnessed at Belmont Park as American Pharoah glided down the stretch in isolated splendor will stir the emotions of every "sensitive soul" who can now say they saw a Triple Crown winner.