Birthday Wishes: Revisiting Pharoah's Belmont

In honor of American Pharoah's Birthday, I thought I would reprint my column recapping his historic Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown victory. It brings back a lot of special memories, especially being the last race I will ever cover.

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 Lasix and steroids controversies, no horses getting spooked by the starter on the track or a cameraman in the gate, 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 ascended into immortality.

Nearly four decades of pent up disappointment and frustration came spilling out 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 (gr. I)  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.

Joyce Patci, who does volunteer work at Old Friends retirement facility, was in the grandstand and described the scene best: “When American Pharoah crossed the wire, flowers came cascading down from the upper balcony.  It was like we were in a movie...or dream. I was shaking, the stands were shaking. I hugged two ladies behind us and literally beat up a poor man to my right; a perfect stranger.”

The waiting was over, as new generations of racing fans and even those with only a casual interest in the sport finally were able to experience 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 of the fact that another had infiltrated that sacred triumvirate of the ‘1970s after so many years.

Both used the exact same short-but-sweet words to describe their feelings: “I’m happy for racing.”

When Mrs. 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 otherworldly 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, he came home his final two quarters in :24 1/5.

To demonstrate just how fast that final half of :48 2/5 was compared to past Triple Crown winners, Affirmed came home in :49 1/5, Seattle Slew :50 4/5, Secretariat :49 4/5, Citation :51 1/5, Assault :50 4/5, Count Fleet :50 2/5, and Whirlaway :51 4/5. No need to go back any farther; it’s pretty much the same.

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 many 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 Saturday because of the Jewish Sabbath, 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.

Soon it was time for family and friends to visit and indulge in helpings of whitefish, lox, bagels, cream cheese, and assorted danish and pastries.

What Zayat feared was a drying out track, which, unlike slop, could make for a testing and demanding surface.

“At this juncture, I’m freaking out,” he said. “I’m very anxious, but it’s something I can’t control.”

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 Espinoza would be riding the Baffert-trained Sky Kingdom in the mile and a half Brooklyn Invitational 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 once 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 (gr. I).

But on this day 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, as he finally was able to grab a little whitefish salad. “With us being in this game since only 2006, it is amazing for my family to be having this humbling experience.”

Like the previous 11 Triple Crown winners, it is ultimately all 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 entire 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.’”

There were several ironies leading up to the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah was stabled in Barn 1, with John and Tonja Terranova’s horses, and Barn 1 happened to be the home of 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault.

Another odd twist came from a comment made after last year’s Belmont Stakes 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,” he said. Apparently the Triple Crown gods were listening and having a good laugh over that one.

In 2009, Zayat sent out his first Kentucky Derby starter, 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.”

He would not only taste it again, following two more seconds, 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 now the garland of carnations, and with it the coveted Triple Crown trophy.

American Pharoah did all his serious training at Churchill Downs, and after his final work, jockey Martin Garcia came back and said to Baffert, “Patron, he is ready. Man, what a horse.”

Garcia is one of the unsung members of the American Pharoah team. Although he rode Baffert’s other Derby hopeful, Dortmund, he has worked Pharoah and been an integral part of the colt’s development.

The native of Veracruz, Mexico has never seen his mother and father. His mother became pregnant with him when she was 14 and abandoned him. He was raised by his grandmother and wound up becoming a construction worker at age 11 after quitting school to earn some money. He later made his way to the U.S., where he worked at Chicago's Metropolitan Deli in Pleasanton, Calif., as dishwasher, bus boy, and cook. These are the little known stories of which Triple Crown dreams are made.

No one was more confident in American Pharoah than Zayat, who tweeted after the Preakness: “Count my word, June 6 WILL be a day to crown a new pharaoh.”

But as his legal and media headaches began to swell, he tweeted: “Please God, give the strength to be stronger and to try to stay true to myself and family’s values. Help me find peace and still love others.”

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 mile and a half, 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, a homebred, the ability to win the Belmont on the lead, and having a trainer who had already won the Belmont. He checked off every box. Eight of the 11 Triple Crown-winning jockeys were Hall of Famers, and Victor Espinoza is a lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame next year. So, that is another box to check off. It was as if, for the past 37 years, destiny was leading us all to this near-perfect horse and this moment in time. This was the year; you could feel it.

America, nearly 10 years into the Vietnam war in 1973, needed Secretariat, even if just as a stabilizing influence. And now it seemed as if the country was again in need of another true equine hero; something pure and beautiful for people to admire and open their heart to, as they did with Big Red. It is difficult to explain the bonding between humans and horses that has existed for centuries, but it certainly was seen and felt this day.

Through it all, Zayat had to persevere through a series of personal attacks, which detracted from the joy he should have been experiencing leading up to the race.

“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 Preakness (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, 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.

A beautiful, sunny day with temperatures in the 70s awaited the Belmont horses. 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 at that point that 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, as he was doing it all on his own. Turning for home, Frosted came off the rail and launched his bid. For a split second he looked as if he was going to make a race of it as the crowd held its breath, having been down this road before. This was where the dreams usually died.

But American Pharoah gave his typical surge and opened up by 2 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole, then kicked into another gear and just kept widening his margin to the wire. It was actually going to happen. The mile and a half, like everything with this colt, was a mere piece of cake, as Pharoah coasted to the wire passing a frenzy of flailing arms. You could actually feel the grandstand shake as the cheers grew deafening. Thirteen times before in the past 37 years, the crowd went silent as they passed the finish line. This time, they were able to cheer, scream, and salute racing’s newest hero down the stretch, just as they did with Secretariat and Seattle Slew.

What was amazing was that we saw the same American Pharoah striding down the stretch in the mile and a half Belmont that we did sprinting at 2 over Polytrack and in all his starts at 3, on fast and sloppy tracks. Here he was coming home in one of the fastest quarter-mile and half-mile times in Belmont history, and he’s striding out just as smoothly and running just as straight as did in all his other races. And at the wire it looked as if he was just getting started, increasing his margin with every stride. This is a horse with an amazing temperament and an exceptionally large heart and angle of stride, which enable him to do extraordinary things and make him as close to the perfect racing machine as any horse we’ve seen in a very long time..

There is a reason why every person who has come in close contact with this horse from the time he was born felt he was something special.

Frosted ran another bang-up race to finish second, two lengths ahead of Keen Ice, who closed well and just got up to nip Mubtaahij for third.

Wherever you looked, people were celebrating. They knew they had witnessed something extraordinary 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 began to well 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 has 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 was coming up big, 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.”

As Baffert said, “You can’t train greatness. You just watch.” And on June 6, the whole country watched, as American Pharoah rode into history.

With his trepidations about the weather gone, Zayat once 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.”

The repercussions of the Belmont Stakes would be felt from coast to coast and around the globe, as the victory would make page one headlines in almost every major newspaper and would be the top story on TV news and sports reports. With the announcement three days later that American Pharoah’s next start would be the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, all box seats and clubhouse seats for Aug. 2 were sold out by the following day. Pharoah fever had begun.

As American Pharoah left the test barn following the race to head back to Barn 1, Nena Moss, owner of fifth-place finisher Frammento was standing nearby, and like everyone else, was caught up in the moment.
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“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 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 all 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. No words were needed.

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 Allen Poe, who wrote, “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.”

And the beauty that was 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.

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