2015: American Pharoah's Triple Crown
By the time American Pharoah made it to the starting gate for the 2015 Kentucky Derby, he had won multiple graded stakes at three different racetracks as well as returned from an injury during his juvenile campaign. He missed out on the Breeders' Cup, but was back in action the following March at Oaklawn Park. Wins followed in the Grade II Rebel Stakes (which was run on an off track) and the Grade I Arkansas Derby by a combined 14 1/4 lengths. That set the Bob Baffert trainee up for a date to Louisville.
Six years before American Pharoah entered the starting gate for the first leg of the Triple Crown, his sire, Pioneerof the Nile, competed in the event, finishing second. Now, his son had the chance to get the win. Sent off as the favorite, American Pharoah did not have a great post position, starting eighteenth of twenty. He began well, and raced very wide early before settling in third while moving a lot closer to the inside part of the track. He dealt with a moderate pace while tracking stablemate Dortmund (who led for much of the race) and Firing Line while looking very good over the Churchill Downs surface. Just before he reached the top of the stretch, the colt made his move, and he and Espinoza were hooked wide as they straightened for their second trip under the Twin Spires. It was a three horse race, between American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund. During the FrontRunner, American Pharoah had a brief challenge from a rival before rebuffing it. Now, he was getting a battle from two horses who were going all out for the win. A stretch battle developed in front of the thousands attending live and the millions watching on television. Dortmund backed off as the last sixteenth began, and Firing Line gave it all he had. So did American Pharoah, and he had more that day in Louisville, taking the 141st Kentucky Derby.
The Preakness awaited, and two weeks after the Run For the Roses, it was time to try for the Black-Eyed Susans. American Pharoah found himself back on an off track, as well as on the rail. Once more, the colt proved adroit at navigating an off track. He moved with confidence, getting the lead early. The first six furlongs were run faster than the Derby, but American Pharoah never relinquished the lead. He put on a dazzling performance in front of the fans at Pimlico, capturing the Preakness by daylight. That meant Belmont Park and a chance for the Triple Crown was next.
Before American Pharoah came along, the most recent horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes was Affirmed in 1978. Since then, thirteen horses had taken the first two races of the series, but none had been able to conquer the race known as the Test of the Champion (although it should be noted that I'll Have Another was scratched the morning before the Belmont and did not compete in the race). By 2015, many had wondered whether they would ever see a horse sweep the classics.
Given the history between Affirmed's triumph and American Pharoah's attempt, one of two scenarios would play out: racing would either see a new champion, or the wait would continue for at least another year.
That was not lost on either Bob Baffert or Victor Espinoza. Both men knew about Triple Crown bids being spoiled. Baffert had sent three horses into Belmont Park with a shot at the Triple Crown: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002), the latter being ridden by Espinoza. All three saw their bids spoiled. For Baffert or Espinoza, they no doubt wondered for more than a decade if they would have another chance at racing's most elusive prize.
Just as it always did when the Triple Crown was on the line, the sport was buzzing going into the Belmont,. Baffert had spoken very highly about his charge before the 1 1/2 mile event, and that distance was all that separated American Pharoah from Thoroughbred racing's most exclusive club.
Thousands arrived at Belmont Park, and millions more tuned in on television. Just before the gates opened, a roar from the crowd was heard. The anticipation had reached a crescendo, and the excitement could be felt no matter where one was. The hope that a new Triple Crown champion would be seen permeated the sport.
After the start of the race, Espinoza and American Pharaoh quickly took the lead on the inside part of the track. There was not going to be any wide trips, at least not that early. The two controlled the pace moving into the first turn and the backstretch, setting slow but reasonable fractions for the twelve furlong distance. Going down the backstretch, the thousands of voices had melded into one, cheering excitedly while wondering if history would be made in just mere moments.
Arriving into the far turn, American Pharoah moved forward, his eyes focused ahead. He had not picked up the pace, but he was not showing signs of fading, either. The lead was small, but no one was racing alongside. Finally, at the top of the stretch, the only horse who had a chance to dethrone the Triple Crown hopeful was Frosted. American Pharoah continued on, carrying nearly four decades of hope and frustration with him. Only the frontstretch was between him and the victory. Frosted would not give up, giving everything he could to catch the leader, but American Pharoah had more in the tank. He was not slowing down or fading like others had before him. The crowd got louder, the excitement palpable. Was it really happening? Was the Crown about to be won?
There were no more challenges in the last sixteenth. People in the grandstands and infield were jumping up and down and letting their elation be heard. When American Pharoah crossed the wire, he not only became the twelfth Triple Crown champion, but also immortal in an instant. He gave fans the feeling that those who had seen Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed had in the 1970s. They had seen a Triple Crown winner, and for many, it was the first time. There is a possibility that the colt's accomplishment could have introduced new people to Thoroughbred racing on its biggest stage.
On that afternoon at Belmont Park, the son of Pioneerof the Nile became a hero to the sport and scores of fans.
American Pharoah was not just an all-time favorite. He was a champion in more ways than one.