Horse Racing

American Pharoah wins Belmont Stakes, earns first Triple Crown since 1978

American Pharoah #5, ridden by Victor Espinoza, comes down the final stretch ahead of the field on his way to winning the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015 in Elmont, New York.
American Pharoah #5, ridden by Victor Espinoza, comes down the final stretch ahead of the field on his way to winning the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park on June 6, 2015 in Elmont, New York. Getty Images

Just before the start of the 147th Belmont Stakes, Ahmed Zayat did the horse racing equivalent of calling his shot.

“I looked at my wife in the post parade,” Zayat said. “I told her to be ready to be the wife of the 12th Triple Crown winner.”

The 52-year-old from Cairo couldn’t have been more right.

Zayat’s horse, American Pharoah, sped away from the field at the Belmont Stakes and into immortality Saturday, winning the third and final leg of the Triple Crown by 5 1/2 lengths.

In doing so, American Pharoah became just the 12th horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

He did so with panache.

The 3-year-old thoroughbred led wire-to-wire. He pulled away from the field in the homestretch, with some 90,000 in attendance — including former President Bill Clinton — screaming in support. And he posted the sixth-fast time (2:26.65) in the race’s long and storied history.

American Pharoah was the overwhelming betting favorite; his win returned just $3.50 on a standard $2 bet. Frosted, his top competition Saturday, finished a distant second. Keen Ice was third.

Put simply, they weren’t anywhere near his class.

Horse racing has yearned for an inspirational and dominant champion for years. In the past five weeks, American Pharoah has delivered.

Many questioned whether the grueling mile and a half oval would prove too much. But instead of fading in the deciding moments, he reached another gear and pulled away from the field.

For trainer Bob Baffert, who three times before brought a Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion to Belmont only to fall short, it is the signature moment of a legendary career.

Three years removed from a heart attack, Baffert has tried to stay loose in the three weeks since Preakness, which is held in Baltimore.

The biggest curveball he faced on an otherwise perfect Saturday: the moment of panic when Baffert realized he didn’t take his heart medication in the morning.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever have another horse like that, [and] I’ve had some great horses,” Baffert said. “Down the backside, he was in his groove, and I knew that if he’s a great horse, he’s going to do it. He’s just a great horse.”

Baffert, whom rival trainer Dale Romans on Saturday called “the greatest trainer of all time,” had that horse ready.

And jockey Victor Espinoza rode him flawlessly.

Starting in the fifth post position, American Pharoah broke cleanly and charged to the front of the eight-horse field.

He reached the rail before the first turn and sped through the first quarter-mile in 24.06 seconds.

He set the pace and kept it, with Mubtaahij, which finished fourth, pushing him throughout the backstretch.

The track was fast. The weather — 67 degrees and sunny — was ideal.

And so American Pharoah’s brisk pace continued through a mile, which he ran in 1:37.99.

Baffert and Espinoza put him in position, at the final turn, to run into the history books.

Zayat likens his prize possession to a Ferrari. In the final quarter-mile, American Pharoah ran like it, speeding past the finish line as the old racetrack on New York’s Long Island trembled.

“I have been extremely confident all week,” said Zayat, who ran a lucrative beer company in Egypt before turning his attention to horse racing. “I have been through the whole time saying he’s a very good horse, but he could be special in order for you to come and win the Triple Crown, you have to define greatness.”

On a perfect June afternoon in Manhattan’s shadow, American Pharoah did that and more.

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