American Pharoah, Triple Crown Worth The Wait

Photo by Amber Chalfin | contributing Photographer

Photo by Amber Chalfin | contributing Photographer

The question has been answered, once and for all.

Yes, it’s possible to sweep three extraordinary races in five weeks and win the Triple Crown.

Yes, North America does produce horses that can navigate the Belmont’s rarely-run distance of a mile and a half.

And, yes, a special horse is required to complete that extraordinary task last accomplished 37 years ago.

That horse is American Pharoah.

People throughout Kentucky and Southern Indiana – along with 90,000 people at New York’s Belmont Park and countless others across North America – engaged in an extraordinary group hug and a sustained and jubilant cheer early Sunday evening when Pharoah, the determined winner of the Kentucky Derby who had cruised in the Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, pulled clear in the homestretch at Belmont Park for an easy victory in the “The Test of the Champion.”

With his run at Belmont, American Pharoah finally increased the number of Triple Crown winners to a dozen. The last had been Affirmed in 1978, the last of a run of success in the 70s that also added the legendary Secretariat to the roster of Triple Crown winners in 1973 and Seattle Slew, the only unbeaten horse to sweep the series, in 1977.

With Pharoah’s victory, the first Triple Crown winner of the social media age trended through weekend on Twitter, was the subject of radio and TV sports shows for days and became a Sports Illustrated cover boy with an image of his historic run being recorded not only by the photographer, but by a sea of handheld smartphones.

It might not be your grandfather’s world, with horses like Citation, Omaha, Whirlaway or the trio of ’70s Triple Crown heroes. But American Pharoah took possession of the age of instant data, 24-hour news cycles and selfie sticks with five weeks of excellence.

Pharoah’s victories extended his winning streak to seven major races since finishing fifth in his debut at Southern California’s Del Mar – a run that was mysterious before but now seems downright impossible following his Triple Crown tour de force.  He’s the toast of American racing and the sports world in general, and has prompted more than a few scribes and talking heads to consider the notion that Thoroughbred racing might not be as dead as they’d proclaimed it to be.

Thirty-seven years was an extraordinarily long wait, both for lifelong racing fans and those of the more casual variety.

What made it frustrating was that 13 horses had marched into the Belmont Stakes with the possibility of completing the sweep, and all had failed.  The streak had started with a loss in the 1979 Belmont Stakes by Spectacular Bid, a setback as inexplicable as America Pharoah’s clunker in his career debut.

For many, unbeaten Smarty Jones and Big Brown had seemed as close to Triple Crown “sure things” as ever existed. But Smarty Jones, pressured by three different horses at different stages of the Belmont, couldn’t hold off victorious Birdstone’s last challenge. And Belmont Day was cruel to Big Brown, who failed to finish, though he wasn’t injured or in obvious distress.

But after nearly four decades of frustration, owner Ahmed Zayat’s homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile won the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown in the most time-honored and basic way. He was the best horse of a strong group of three-year-olds, and he went to the front and stayed there.

Numbers are an important part of this Belmont: Bob Baffert earned his first Triple Crown after having failed in a record three previous attempts; jockey Victor Espinoza tasted his first sweep; American Pharoah’s winning streak is now at a lucky seven; and his new career goal is to complete the year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which is worth $5 million (a very good number) and will be run at Kentucky’s Keeneland Race Course for the first time.

Churchill Downs' Todd Herl affixed a gold crown next to American Pharoah's name in the Churchill Downs paddock to reflect his new status as Triple Crown winner. Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs’ Todd Herl affixed a gold crown next to American Pharoah’s name in the Churchill Downs paddock to reflect his new status as Triple Crown winner. Photos by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

But after the Belmont, I love this set of numbers most: 24.06, :24.77, :24:58, 24.58, :24.34 and :24.32.

Those are the quarter-mile times run in succession by American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes. Notice how steady those fractional times are and, most importantly, look at the times for the first quarter and the last.

Yes, he ran the last quarter mile faster than he’d covered the first. The final race time of 2:26.65 was the sixth-fastest in Belmont history. Among Triple Crown winners, it was second only to Secretariat’s earth-shattering 2:24.

In the racing business, that kind of time in a front-running masterpiece is called “race horse time.”

And American Pharoah is all race horse.

There will be efforts now to try to determine where Pharoah fits in the elite ranks of Triple Crown winners, but pay no attention to those people. There’s no way to accurately measure that – and, more to the point, there’s no need.

Each of the previous Triple Crown winners was a remarkable and accomplished athlete, and it seems that fate required that any horse who joined the fraternity must also be extraordinary.

American Pharoah deserves to be in that club – and that’s all the analysis required.

Zayat, Baffert and Espinoza have been on a ride with the right horse at the right time – a horse that was very much worth the wait. VT