He had been cooped up all day long. They stuck the best horse on the planet inside a barn at the end of the road, nestled up along Hempstead Turnpike, and didn’t allow anyone in. American Pharoah was there all day long. No visitors, just officials – and there were even very few of them. The sliding doors to the forest-green barn with the white roof stayed closed from the moment Belmont Park opened. People walked by and asked if the horse had come out.
No, they were told, he had not.
At 5:42 p.m., American Pharoah finally emerged from the barn and into the late afternoon, staring straight at the Wendy’s and the Subway and the Tobacco Junction across the street. It was showtime. The biggest, baddest horse on the grounds was ready to be seen. The handlers took him out back and gave him a bath, the sun glistening off of his rich, chocolate-colored coat, the steam rising off his back and dancing in the light.
Bob Baffert, the trainer of this majestic beast, stood a few feet away watching with one eye while tying the shoes of his 10-year-old son, Bode.
“What happened to the rain?” Baffert had said minutes earlier on his walk to the barn. “I wanted the rain to tighten up that track. I want the same track Secretariat ran on – how do I get that?”
He was kidding. Well, maybe not. Baffert knew that his horse could excel on the same type of hard and fast track that had produced the most famous Triple Crown winner in racing history. But this place has been cruel to those attempting horse racing’s most arduous feat. Win three races in 36 days, over three states on three different tracks. Only 11 horses had ever accomplished the feat. None since 1978.
There had been challengers, of course – Baffert having been on the doorstep three times before, in 1997 with Silver Charm, 1998 with Real Quiet and 2002 with War Emblem. But Belmont Park is an unforgiving track. A one-and-a-half-mile long monster, which has chewed up and spit out Triple Crown contenders over the last 37 years.
Until American Pharoah kicked the track known as “Big Sandy” in the teeth, winning the 147th Belmont Stakes by the fourth-largest margin ever from a Triple Crown winner, at 5 1/2 lengths.
“I just feel like I have a very special horse,” Baffert would say later, amid the celebration. “And he’s the one that won. It wasn’t me. It was the horse.”
That seems like as good of a place to start, doesn’t it? After all, the horse is the one that truly does all the work. American Pharoah had become the latest horse to arrive in New York at the Belmont Stakes, needing to win the final leg to complete the Triple Crown. We had all been here before – it was almost a year to the day that California Chrome became the last almost-got-it horse – and frankly, it was getting kind of tiring. To not have a Triple Crown winner for almost four decades? At some point, you’re just going to give up chasing the carrot. But here we all were again on Long Island on what turned into a splendid spring Saturday, waiting to see if a horse owned by a millionaire former Egyptian beer baron could end the streak.
If you’ve never been to the Belmont Stakes, it falls somewhere near the depravity of the Preakness Stakes yet far below the elegance of the Kentucky Derby. But in the makeup of the Triple Crown, it’s a necessary evil – no one’s favorite, but you have to do it.
“I like the Derby the best,” said Valerie Bridges, an Ocala, Florida resident who made the trip up with her girlfriends for the week. “But at the end of the day, the Belmont is what you need to finish off the Triple Crown.”
And so once again, everyone schlepped to the massive racetrack hoping to see history. Saturday at the Belmont is the place where Friday night meets Saturday morning, where women show up in maxi-dresses and miniskirts and where the bros in polos alternate between Bud Light and Bud heavy.
OK, enough of that. Back to the horse.
Pharoah, ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, had beaten a crowded field of 18 at the Kentucky Derby and smashed the Preakness field by seven lengths after a deluge hit the place. Suddenly, everyone started to wonder: Is this the year that it finally happens?
His bombastic owner, Ahmed Zayat, told folks to “Bring it on!” after the Preakness. The charismatic son, Justin Zayat, said all of the right things throughout the run to Belmont. And the Hall of Fame trainer, Baffert, had done his best to keep things in perspective. At the draw for the race on Wednesday afternoon though, the magnitude of the chase for history suddenly began to set in.
In Rockefeller Center, the Zayats and Baffert went coy.
“I don’t think about it, because I know how tough it is,” Baffert said.
And after poking the racing gods with his post-Preakness comments, Ahmed Zayat stood in front of the statue of Prometheus and brought anything but fire to the crowd in front of him.
“I think we’re going in the best we could,” he said.
The message was a simple one: History would be up to American Pharoah.
The walk from Barn No. 4 to the paddock seemed to take forever. A mess of people and television cameras had crowded the area where American Pharoah had to turn from the relative peace of the stable area and head into a cauldron of noise and anticipation on the other side of the road.
“I think I’m starting to get nervous,” Bode Baffert told his dad as the big horse got ready to make the trek.
“No, no,” the father replied, patting him on the back.
Going from the barns to the paddock is when the reach for history goes from something people talk about to something real. And if the task at hand wasn’t daunting enough, American Pharoah had to walk up Count Fleet Drive to get to Secretariat Avenue. He had to pause momentarily for the NBC cameras right in front of the barn where Secretariat – the baddest horse who ever lived – was stabled in 1973, when he crushed the field by such a margin his jockey had to look back to see everyone else.
On his way to the paddock, Baffert and the Pharoah training team were greeted with all sorts of cheers.
Good luck, Bob!
This is the year!
You’ve got the hang of it now, Bob!
(Baffert, to his credit, played it cool, keeping only a slight smile on his face. His only show of emotion? Yelling “Guacamole!” so his children wouldn’t step in the huge piles of horse poop.)
Once down in the paddock, he found the Zayat family. Justin Zayat, who had become the poster boy for the colt’s run to this point, was nervous. He jittered back and forth, wiping his face, until finally seeing Baffert in front of him. The two embraced, with Baffert telling him in his ear: “This is like a movie right now.”
“I know, I know,” the younger Zayat said with a smile.
The parade of horses made their way into the paddock, were saddled up and prepared for entry into the racetrack. At this point, the Zayat family had amassed an enormous entourage. Family members mixed with friends and compatriots and a few fans who managed to sneak into the fray. There were some business partners who grabbed a piece of the spotlight and even a pair of leggy models thrown in by the energy drink, Monster, which had sponsored the horse and family this week. (To their credit, the models – Kayla and Maria – continually said, “Yes!” whenever Ahmed Zayat asked them if Pharoah would win. He asked them six times.)
With the Zayat clan waiting for NBC’s television crew to set up a live shot for the walk into the grounds, the handler in charge of guiding American Pharoah around the paddock stopped. The horse had paused for a second and stared intently at Ahmed Zayat.
In a moment of lucidity, Zayat reverted back to his old self.
“Look at you!” Zayat shouted at the horse, shaking his fist. “You’re ready baby! You’re ready!”
At 6:50 p.m., with Belmont Park – all 90,000 fans – primed and ready for the moment, American Pharoah took his place inside the starting gate. Seconds later, as the clock ticked to 6:51 p.m., they were off.
Espinoza didn’t get an ideal start out of the gate, but immediately shot to the lead. Frosted, Materiality and Mubtaahij all trailed behind at the first turn. Horses moved up and back. They tried to push Pharoah and move him off his pace. The horse would not be deterred. With Espinoza guiding him, he moved further ahead at the half-mile marker. By the time he entered the far turn, American Pharoah was 3/4 of a length ahead of the pack.
Then, as the eight-horse field entered the final stretch, Belmont held its breath.
This is usually where the dream dies. We’d all seen it before. The torrid pace of the Triple Crown schedule catches up with the horses. The distance of the track and the sandy surface drag these horses from the peak of sporting glory into the pile of close calls. But it never happened on this Saturday evening.
Two lengths became three. Three became four. Four became five.
Suddenly, American Pharoah wasn’t just in the lead, he was running away with the race. The noise built and built as the mighty horse charged for the finish line. People screamed as loud as they could, jumped up and down. And then it happened.
At 6:54 p.m. – with Espinoza’s crop extended high in the air – American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes, the Triple Crown and placed himself in the pantheon of legendary horses.
“I threw up!” Ashley Zayat, the eldest daughter of the horse’s owner yelled in the winner’s circle after.
“Oh my God! Oh my God, really?!” a friend screamed back at her.
“Yessssss!!!” she yelped back. “It’s not normal to be a part of history!”
No, Ashley. No it’s not. As the horse made its victory parade up and down the finishing stretch, being mobbed and greeted by the family and Zayat Racing members, fans chanted his name. Once the trophies were given out and the party dispersed back to different quarters, American Pharoah was whisked out a back entrance near the first turn and out to Barn No. 11.
There, nearly a dozen New York Racing Association Peace Officers guarded his presence, as he received another bathing.
“Incredible,” one of those officers, Mark Dupper, said. “Never thought I’d live to see another one.”
Dupper has been a Peace Officer for 45 years. He started in 1970, three years before Secretariat’s historic win. He was there for Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Staring at the latest addition to the Triple Crown fraternity, Dupper was reassessing history in his own mind. For 41 years, Secretariat’s win in 1973 was the loudest he had ever heard Belmont Park.
“That was loud,” he said. “But this? This might’ve been louder. This was 37 years of frustration being let out.”
A half-hour later, American Pharoah emerged to head back to Barn No. 1, his day complete and his place in history secure. They brought him out the back side of his stable and gave him one last bath as the sun set behind him. On the street less than 50 yards away, Hempstead Turnpike was bustling as the park emptied out after a thrilling day. Fans walked the sidewalk by Pharoah’s barn, completely unaware that the star of the day could be seen with a simple peek over the fence.
At 8:09 p.m., he was wiped down and led back inside, with the door sliding behind him.
Members of the racing team and the newly extended Zayat family tricked in to the yard area behind the barn, picking up glasses of champagne as they slipped through the fence. The party began to pick up as the sun went down, congratulations given and high-fives made. History had been made and a winless streak stopped on this day. The sun continued to fade from view until the back park was completely dark, filled only with the voices of those celebrating.
As 9 p.m. neared, Bob Baffert walked up the tunnel from the paddock area on Secretariat Avenue, turning down Count Fleet Road. He had Bode to his left, holding hands as they made their way down toward Barn No. 1 to join the party. Baffert was calmly talking about Pharoah and the race and Espinoza’s ride, when his son filled a pause.
“I think that was the best horse race I’ve ever seen,” Bode declared.
“Oh yeah?” Baffert asked, a smile coming across his face. “Me too.”