ELMONT, N.Y. — American Pharoah sat back in the starting gate and when the doors opened he was late. For a moment, for one second out of 146, it didn’t look good for the horse who was chasing history.
But the 3-year-old bay colt, bidding to become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown and the first in 37 years to win it, burst to the front and took control of the small, eight-horse field and his destiny.
American Pharoah is the great, great, great grandson of Secretariat, a Virginia-bred horse that not only won the Triple Crown, setting records in all three legs, but is considered, along with Man O’ War, to be the greatest American racehorse of all time.
The Belmont Stakes was over before anyone watching the race knew. That is except for trainer Bob Baffert. He and jockey Victor Espinoza understood how great their horse is and, even before the Belmont was halfway done, they were certain they were going to win.
The horse with the misspelled name led wire-to-wire Saturday, defeating second-place Frosted by a comfortable margin — 5 1/2 lengths. Keen Ice was third.
“Down the backside he was in his groove and I knew he’s a great horse and he was going to do it,” Baffert said. “He’s just a great horse. It takes a great horse to do (win the Triple Crown).”
The trainer later said: “I could tell by the eighth pole it was going to happen and all I did was just take in the crowd. It was thundering.”
American Pharoah is the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 1978.
Owner Ahmed Zayat, when handed the Triple Crown trophy, said: “I am so thrilled, honored, privileged, humbled, excited.”
American Pharoah was the only horse in the race who had run both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But he showed early he didn’t have tired legs.
The odds-on favorite started from the fifth post and was slow out of the gate, but given daylight to his inside, he was in the lead before the first pole.
He set a moderate pace, with five of the other seven horses just behind.
Espinoza sensed history early in the race.
“In the first turn it was the best feeling I’ve ever had,” he told reporters.
To the 90,000 fans at Belmont Park, the 1 1/2-mile race was still among a tight group of a half dozen horses. They stayed bunched down the backstretch with American Pharoah slightly ahead.
As he came out of the far turn, he motored to a two-length lead. Finally, the crowd could sense the drought was about to end and roared their approval. American Pharoah wears ear plugs, but the people in the stands were so loud he just might have heard them.
American Pharoah kept extending the lead until crossing the finish line in 2:26.65, the sixth-fastest time in Belmont history.
Baffert said his horse had trained very well and the team had him prepared to win.
Baffert and Espinoza each won their first Triple Crown after multiple prior attempts with other horses.
“I just feel like I have a very special horse and he’s the one that won,” Baffert, 62, said. “It wasn’t me.”
Baffert had been frustrated three times before but none was more upsetting that 1998 when his horse Real Quiet dueled with Victory Gallop. Real Quiet won the Derby and the Preakness, and he led the Belmont at the start of the long homestretch. Victory Gallop made up significant ground and won at the wire by a nose.
“I was really getting to dislike this trophy. It’s caused me a lot of misery,” Baffert said. “I still can’t believe it happened. … I couldn’t be any happier.”
Third time a charm
Espinoza, 43, also had a record-setting day as the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. He is also the first Latino jockey to win it.
“I came here with a lot of confidence, more confidence than the last two (Triple Crown attempts),” he said. “That trophy it caused me a lot of stress … but the third time was the charm.”
Espinoza first competed for the Triple Crown in 2002, but War Emblem faltered and finished eighth at Belmont. California Chrome finished fourth in 2014.
Until Saturday, 13 horses since 1979 had won at Churchill Downs and Pimlico but failed to triumph at Belmont.
In 1978, Affirmed, ridden by Steve Cauthen, defeated second-place Alydar in three exciting races.
Previous Triple Crown winners:
1919 — Sir Barton
1930 — Gallant Fox
1935 — Omaha
1937 — War Admiral
1941 — Whirlaway
1943 — Count Fleet
1946 — Assault
1948 — Citation
1973 — Secretariat
1977 — Seattle Slew
1978 — Affirmed
2015 — American Pharoah
American Pharoah’s next big win: Stud fees
American Pharoah is the first Triple Crown in 37 years, but his biggest payday won’t be on a race track.
The big money will come from the stud fees he’ll earn once his racing days are over.
The horse’s owners, Zayat Stables, sold his breeding rights on May 20 for an undisclosed amount, just four days after he won the Preakness and became a contender for the Triple Crown.
Justin Zayat, racing manager for Zayat Stables, told ESPN that they had passed on an offer “north of $20 million” for the breeding rights.
But when the sale was announced, his father Ahmed Zayat told the sports network it was an offer he just couldn’t pass up.
Even if they paid tens of millions for the breeding rights, the new owners have a very good shot of making back their investment. American Pharoah could collect between $6 million to $7.5 million in stud fees every year for decades to come.
As a Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah could collect as much as $100,000 per foal in stud fees, according to Evan Hammonds, executive editor of BloodHorse, the trade publication that covers the horse breeding industry. A horse can father 100 foals a year.
Prior to the Belmont, when he just had Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins, it was estimated that he would collect $60,000 to $75,000 per foal,
That kind of stud money means most successful racing careers are short, Hammonds said.
Additional races put American Pharoah at risk for an injury that could force his owners to put him down before he ever gets put out to stud. There is also the risk that Pharoah could start losing, cutting into his stud fees.
It’s not just his success on the track that makes American Pharoah so valuable. It’s also his blood lines.
His father, Pioneerof the Nile, (that’s not a typo) makes $60,000 per foal because he’s fathered so many successful horses. And that rate is likely to climb next year given Pharoah’s success.
California Chrome, which won the Derby and Preakness last year, hasn’t been put out to stud yet since his blood lines aren’t as prestigious. His stud fee is probably in the the neighborhood of $25,000.
So his owners decided to race him for another year. He went to the Dubai World Cup where he placed second, scoring another $2 million in winnings.
Why American Pharoah’s name is spelled wrong
Social media erupted in horse emojis on Saturday as soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line at the Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
But it didn’t take long for wisecracks and confusion over the infamous misspelling of his name to pop up amid the horse puns and exclamation points.
Without naming names, let’s just say at least one major news source got it “wrong” (and by wrong, we mean right), spelling his name “pharaoh” in a tweet, prompting rebukes from social media users.
We’ve been through this before but let’s do it again: The bad spelling came from a mistake in the horse’s registration paperwork.
The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported that a fan submitted the name of the horse during an online contest, and spelled pharaoh wrong. The woman later told media outlets she checked the spelling before she submitted the name.
Regardless, the misspelling was put on the electronic form to the site where owners register their horses. Now the name is trademarked, the Louisville paper reported.
That hasn’t stopped the name from trending in the past with the wrong spelling, though that did not seem to be the case Saturday night.
But as long as American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, sticks with it, it seems the rest of the world with have to follow suit.
Besides, horses can’t spell.