My goodness, the sound was indescribable. As American Pharoah made the final turn at Belmont Park and headed down the homestretch with no horse within shouting distance, the entire place rose as one. Many of them were there for the spectacle of possibly seeing the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. Others were just regulars who had endured the close calls and brutal defeats of decades past.
So when it became very clear that not only was Pharoah going to win, but he was going to do so by a wide margin, the place finally was able to let out a sound that had been bottled up for 37 years.
I have never heard anything like it.
And truly, that is part of the reason why American Pharoah’s win was one of the iconic moments of the 2015 sporting calendar. Yes, the achievement of the Triple Crown was amazing, especially when you consider the different ways the 3-year-old colt won each of the races: Amongst a packed field at the Derby; in the slop and rain at the Preakness; and by sheer power at the Belmont. But more than anything, American Pharoah’s win on that glorious June evening was cathartic.
Whether you had watched the close calls on television for the past three-plus decades or had been there in the stands, seeing American Pharoah cross the finish line to win the race allowed anyone who cared about horse racing – and really, sports – to stand up and shout, “Yes!”
An indelible moment in the aftermath of the historic win was running into one of the New York Racing Association Peace Officers outside of the barn where the horse was being cooled off. Mark Dupper had been employed in that position for 45 years, starting three years before Secretariat’s legendary win.
We talked briefly about the horses he had seen pull off the Triple Crown – Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew four years later and Affirmed the year after that – and what that era of horse racing was like. He said that people around these parts knew how rare it was to accomplish the feat, but after three horses did it in a seven-year stretch, how could you not think it wouldn’t keep happening?
“I’ve been waiting every June to see another one,” he said, a smile emerging on the right side of his mouth.
And that is really what will make American Pharoah’s win so memorable for a generation of racing fans.
We might see a horse do it next summer, or two years from now, or a decade down the road. It will happen again. Some horse, ridden by some jockey, trained by some trainer, owned by some owner will arrive at the Belmont having captured the first two legs and win it all. But it won’t mean as much as it did to the 90,000 at the park earlier this summer, or the millions watching around the country.
To be there on that day, and to witness what that horse did – and did for everyone rooting him on – will be a seminal moment that will live on not just in horse racing history, but sports history as well.
There were people in tears. Police, assigned to stem the crowds from spilling into places where they weren’t allowed, were hugging total strangers. VIPs from the winner’s circle stuffed fistfuls of the sandy track into finely tailored pants. It was something that everyone wanted to remember forever. But the memories simply weren’t enough; they needed something tangible to prove it actually happened.
In trying to capture the story, I can remember ending up at the back end of Barn No. 1, where American Pharoah was stabled that week. The sun was setting and this majestic animal (and he is majestic) was being soaped up one last time. I had never covered a horse race before, having lucked into an amazing moment on the very first try, but I spent much of the time back there with Dick Jerardi, the longtime horse racing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Dick has been at the paper for 30 years and covered every Triple Crown race since 1987.
It was his first time witnessing a winner, too. Neither one of us could pull ourselves away.
That is why it was so loud when American Pharoah came around that turn and headed toward history. This was a horse that was different. He will – and should – be remembered for a great many things that he gave us this summer, none more welcome than the sound of 90,000 people finally given a reason to erupt on a Saturday evening in June. A sound not heard around these parts since Secretariat’s famous ride.
“That was loud,” Dupper, the Peace Officer told me that day. “But this? This might’ve been louder. This was 37 years of frustration being let out.”