ELMONT, N.Y. — American Pharoah broke one of the most famous dry spells in sports Saturday, joining Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed as one of 12 Triple Crown winners in thoroughbred racing history.
He did it with a brilliant wire-to-wire win in the Belmont Stakes, the grueling 1 1/2-mile test that had stopped 13 gifted contenders over the past 37 years.
For more than a year, seasoned observers had told owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert that they were raising a potential all-time great. American Pharoah — a muscular brown colt marked by his short tail and misspelled name — left no doubt on the biggest stage possible.
"He's just a great horse," Baffert said, looking dazed as a sellout crowd of 90,000 roared and danced around him. "It takes a great horse to do it."
"This is for the sport!" a giddy Zayat shouted. "After 37 years. We need stars."
Baffert had trained three of the near-misses, and American Pharoah's jockey, Victor Espinoza, had ridden two of them. Finally they found a horse who could deal with all the obstacles inherent to the most difficult test in their sport.
American Pharoah's run at the Triple Crown began with a gutsy outing May 2 in the Kentucky Derby, where he could never find his speed and still won. Espinoza whipped him more than 30 times as he held off hard-charging Firing Line.
The scene then moved on May 16 to Baltimore, where he glided through a torrential downpour to win the Preakness by an easy seven lengths, even as the city recovered from April riots and track officials talked about moving the race from historic Pimlico Race Course to Laurel Park in future years.
The race was run less than three weeks after violence erupted in the city over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, and after the Baltimore Orioles had played a Major League Baseball game with no fans in attendance at Camden Yards. American Pharoah's win in the mud at Pimlico showed the nation that the city could host a major sporting event in the wake of unrest.
Hundreds of racing fans came out to Pimlico and Laurel Park on Saturday to cheer on American Pharoah's Triple Crown victory.
Jesse Howell, 56, of Dunkirk wasn't sure he would ever see the drought end. But when it finally did, he had to tip his cap.
"It's good that history changes," Howell said at Laurel. "Someone had to break it. That's unbelievable."
After the Preakness, American Pharoah seemed indomitable.
But for more than three decades, the Belmont has been the crucible that has broken the most gifted 3-year-old thoroughbreds. Whether they faltered because of the 11/2-mile distance or were outrun by fresher opponents, 13 tried and failed to follow Affirmed. The last favorite to win the race was Afleet Alex in 2005 (he'd taken the Preakness but finished third in the Derby, less than a length behind the winner).
Belmont tales of woe are essential to racing lore — Spectacular Bid stepping on a safety pin and fading in 1979, Smarty Jones thrilling a record crowd of 120,139 before Birdstone caught him late in 2004, Big Brown going off as a 3-10 favorite only to pull up before the finish in 2008.
But nothing went wrong for American Pharoah under a blue sky at Belmont Park. Espinoza took him right to the lead after a clean break, and no one ever made a serious move on the 3-5 favorite.
Frosted finished 5 1/2 lengths back, the third-largest margin in a Triple-Crown-winning race. American Pharoah's winning time of 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds was the sixth-fastest in Belmont history, fittingly just edging Affirmed.
Baffert felt American Pharoah was perfectly prepared and told Espinoza in the paddock: "He's ready. Ride him with confidence."
The jockey said he knew he'd won by the first turn. "I tell you, I had the best feeling ever when he crossed that turn," he said, beaming in his light blue and yellow polka-dotted silk.
American Pharoah paid $3.50 on a $2 bet to win, $2.80 to place and $2.50 to show. Frosted paid $3.50 and $2.90. Third-place finisher Keen Ice paid $4.50.
The losing jockeys and trainers seemed nearly as excited to have been part of history as American Pharoah's connections.
"It's exciting because we have not seen this for so long, and the winner really looked brilliant," said Frosted's rider, Joel Rosario.
"That's a hell of a horse," said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who came closer than anyone to beating American Pharoah five weeks ago in the Derby. "The race was over in the third jump from the gate. It was over."
Thirty-seven years is an eternity in sports. The same month Affirmed won his Triple Crown, baseball's Orioles drafted Cal Ripken Jr., who would have time to play 2,632 straight games and enter the Hall of Fame during the ensuing gap. Former and current NFL stars Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning were toddlers. Olympic great Michael Phelps and pro basketball's LeBron James wouldn't be born until well into the next decade.
With each failure, the achievement gained weight, and the debate intensified over why no horse could do it. Last year, California Chrome's co-owner, Steve Coburn, griped that the whole thing was rigged because so few horses run all three legs.
Nonetheless, many racing analysts came into Saturday believing American Pharoah was the horse to bring the Triple Crown club to an even dozen.
His quest represented a potential apotheosis for three of the major figures on today's American racing scene.
Espinoza, 43, grew up riding a donkey around his family's dairy farm in Hidalgo, Mexico, and paid his way to jockey school by driving a bus around Mexico City as a teenager. He moved to California and rose steadily to the top of his field, riding War Emblem to victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2002. But he fell into a deep slump a few years later, and didn't resurrect his career until he was nearly 40. Last year, he was back with another shot at the Triple Crown aboard California Chrome.
He figured that was his last chance, at least until he climbed aboard the 2-year-old American Pharoah, whose speed flowed more easily than anything the soft-spoken rider had ever felt.
The colt's owner, Zayat, grew up in a prominent Egyptian family, learning to love horses on his parents' farmland. When he sold the beer distributorship that made him rich, he redirected his considerable passion to the American thoroughbred game, rapidly building one of the most talented stables in the country.
Three times his horses, including American Pharoah's sire, Pioneer of the Nile, finished second in the Kentucky Derby. American Pharoah was bred in Kentucky, and by last fall, wise horsemen were telling Zayat he had one for the ages.
Zayat has spent much of the Triple Crown run batting away questions about a lawsuit (dismissed Thursday) claiming he owed $1.65 million in unpaid gambling debts. But the distraction never stopped him from gushing about American Pharoah, whom he likes to compare to Michael Jordan. Zayat's high-pitched laugh became as familiar a part of this story as his horse's easy speed.
The owner has sold the breeding rights to Coolmore Stud for reportedly nearly $14million. Zayat retains the racing rights, but a decision has not been made on how much longer American Pharoah will run, though Zayat said Saturday, "He will probably retire at the end of the year. Can this change? Possibly, I can't promise."
No one had been to the cusp of a Triple Crown more often than Baffert. He was the former quarter-horse jockey from the West Coast who stormed the big-time racing scene in the 1990s, his hair prematurely white and his eyes perpetually covered by shades.
In 1997 and 1998, his horses Silver Charm and Real Quiet came agonizingly close to following Affirmed into the pantheon. War Emblem gave him another chance in 2002, but never got rolling on the deep dirt at Belmont Park.
"I was really starting to dislike that trophy," Baffert joked Saturday. "It's caused me a lot of misery."
He waited a long time for another potential superhorse. He endured a few relative down years, then a heart attack, only to discover a new zest for life raising his son Bode, now 10.
It wasn't clear American Pharoah would be the horse to bring him back. For all of the colt's talent, he lost his composure the first time Baffert put him in a race, finishing fifth. An assistant trainer labeled him a "pendejo," or idiot.
But Baffert and his staff found the right measures to unlock the horse's sweet nature, and American Pharoah has not lost since.
Third-place finisher Keen Ice's trainer, Dale Romans, said the win cemented Baffert as the greatest ever at his trade.
Now that American Pharoah has added the Belmont to his collection, talk will surely turn to what he can do for his sport. Is the new Triple Crown winner a star who can bring casual fans back to the tracks and inspire neophytes to buy and breed racehorses? Will his impact go beyond the $4million breeding bonus he secured for Zayat or the headlines he will occupy over the next few days?
Many industry analysts are skeptical, but if some measure of disappointment is to come, it will have to wait. For now, an oft-beleaguered sport will celebrate.
"I think it makes you feel really good about the sport," Baffert said.
"We needed something like that. Everybody came to see something great, and we witnessed it."