ELMONT, N.Y. – American Pharoah’s feat of racing history looked like this: The brown horse turned almost black with sweat from effort, yet in full stride he left such an impression of ease that he appeared to hover and flutter over the deep sand of Belmont Park. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, rode such a perfect race he seemed almost motionless, until he crossed the finish line when he became a flash of turquoise silk, writhing with joy until he threatened to come out of the saddle on his victory lap.
The first Triple Crown winner in 37 years will be remembered for that signature sense of supple ease, the limber mobility that made something so difficult look so natural. His 5 1/2-length victory Saturday in the Belmont Stakes was visually striking for the amount of air between him and his inferiors, and between his hooves and the ground. All week trainer Bob Baffert had talked about the good “vibe” around his horse, and that’s what he ran like, a weightless emanation that left a crowd of 90,000 roaring with appreciation, not just because they were lucky enough to see history, but because he was beautiful. “As soon as I sit in the saddle, it was such power,” Espinoza said.
How long can 90,000 people scream with their mouths wide open? Several minutes-worth. That’s what racing history sounded like, a sustained throbbing wave for the horse, jockey and trainer. It built down the backstretch and then hit a sustained peak as he crossed the finish line. “All I did was just take in the crowd,” Baffert said. “It was thundering.”
On 12 previous occasions since 1978, horses had come to the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown, and all of them had failed. Baffert, at 62 with a sweep of hair white as sea foam, had trained three of those failures. “Its caused me a lot of misery,” he said. Good horses, maybe even great horses, had been defeated by the combination of Belmont’s ankle-deep sand, the mile-and-a-half distance and a fresh field of horses who had sat out the Preakness and were more rested. All of racing wondered whether the Triple Crown just wasn’t achievable anymore – maybe the horses were too finely bred or needed more rest.
Even American Pharoah’s connections weren’t sure it could be done – they only hoped it could. No one was more deeply experienced in Triple Crowns, or in Triple Crown disappointment, than Baffert. He had been here three times before with a chance to sweep, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. On those occasions, he had been full of confidence. This time, every public statement was an attempt to manage expectations
“The horse is doing well,” he said, “but we still have to get around there.”
Baffert nursed his horse carefully all week; American Pharaoh’s leg wraps looked rich and sumptuous enough for Cleopatra. On the afternoon of the race, their barn was pin-drop quiet and a semi-fortress. A phalanx of black Escalades formed a barrier in front of the barn and the green metal-siding doors were pulled tightly shut, to prevent cameras from disrupting the horse’s peace. At other barns, doors stood open and activity was evident: laundry flapped on lines and grooms hosed down horses. But at American Pharaoh’s barn, the only action was an occasional breeze ruffling the geraniums.
Gawkers stood outside staring at nothing much, catching an occasional glimpse of a stablehand walking a brown-faced creature in a slow circle.
As Espinoza said, “A lot of things can go wrong in a tenth of a second.”
There just were so many numbers against the horse. American Pharoah was racing for the fourth time in eight weeks, whereas the last nine Belmont winners had not run in the Preakness. And he was untested over the deep sandy bottom of the Belmont track.
“We’ll just get him ready, and if he’s great, he’ll get it done,” Baffert said, almost shrugging.
Baffert thought he had great horses before – and he wasn’t wrong. But how to tell the indefinable difference between a great horse and an all-time immortal who belongs in the select group of 11 Triple Crown winners? All American Pharoah’s people knew was that the horse had an “It” factor.
According to Espinoza, what gave them all belief was the ease of his stride, “The way he moves,” Espinoza said. “It really don’t feel like he goes fast. It feels like slow motion, but he’s passing other horses.”
As post time approached, the sense of occasion steadily built and maybe American Pharoah sensed it, despite Baffert’s efforts to keep him quiet. If nothing else, surely the horse could smell the commotion. The air was a mix of Macanudo cigar smoke, grill fumes, mustard and spirits, along with sweet hay and other things that ferment at a track.
He was cool in the paddock, still as a statue. Baffert studied him and told Espinoza: “He’s ready. Go ahead and ride him with confidence.” When he got on to the track he began to throw his head around and dodge sideways, even thrusting his mouth at the lead pony. He was antsy. His owner, Ahmed Zayat, turned to his wife. “Get ready to be the owner of the Triple Crown winner.”
As they turned for home, Baffert prepared himself – he’d seen his horses lead only to be caught and passed before. But finally, here was the horse with the right build and stride and temperament to join the immortal 11 others. American Pharoah galloped into history. “It’s a great name,” Baffert said.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at email@example.com