ELMONT, N.Y. — Bob Baffert texted a friend after watching American Pharoah gallop for the last time Friday before the Belmont Stakes.
“I’m really getting nervous,” he said, pausing slightly for effect. “He’s going to do it.”
Later Friday night, Baffert and his wife, Jill, dined with Joe Torre, who won four World Series managing the New York Yankees, at Del Frisco’s Steakhouse across the street from Radio City Music Hall.
“I said, ‘Joe, with the World Series, how do you mitigate the nerves?’” Jill recalled Saturday night. “Joe said, ‘If you don’t feel nervous, then it’s not important to you.’”
A theme linked the last 37 years of thoroughbred racing, a Hall of Fame trainer and a jockey with more than 3,000 career wins, and even Baffert and the equine aficionado Torre.
When American Pharoah completed a mile and a half in 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds at Belmont Park on Saturday evening, fastest of an eight-horse field, he became the first horse in his position not to fail since Affirmed in 1978.
Thirteen before American Pharoah had captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but couldn’t crack the Belmont, called the “Test of a Champion” for its distance — longer than the Derby and Preakness — and because it is a grueling third race in five weeks.
When American Pharoah jockey Victor Espinoza raised his right arm, saluting the crowd of 90,000 after his five-and-a-half-length victory Saturday, he had finally succeeded.
Espinoza said he felt like a loser in 2002 and 2014, when, after piloting horses to Derby and Preakness wins, he came up short of the Triple Crown at the Belmont.
In those 12 years between, he considered quitting the sport when mired in a slump.
“My career is like the stock market,” Espinoza, one of 12 children from Mexico, said Saturday night. “Up and down.”
When Baffert uncrossed his arms and hugged Jill amid pandemonium in the spectator stands Saturday, he had reached the pinnacle for a thoroughbred trainer.
Baffert’s Triple Crown came after he had taken horses to New York seeking the Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep in 1997, 1998 and 2002, and failed each time, leading the snow-white-haired man in ever-present sunglasses to say, “fate owes me a Triple Crown.”
“You have to prepare yourself for disappointment,” Baffert said. “Otherwise, it will wear on you.”
Baffert, like Espinoza, was humbled in the last decade. After unbelievable early success in thoroughbred training, he went 13 years between Kentucky Derby wins before American Pharoah delivered in Churchill Downs on May 2.
Baffert also lost his parents and suffered a heart attack during a 15-month stretch in 2011-12. (Baffert had a revelation early Saturday morning; he had forgotten to take his heart medication.)
“I’m thinking about my parents,” were among Baffert’s first celebratory words to the media while walking toward the winner’s circle. “I wish they were alive to see this. I was hoping it would happen. I didn’t know how I was going to feel. Now I know.
“They were with me today. I was talking to them the whole race.”
Minutes later, Baffert was handed the Triple Crown Trophy by American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat. Torre was around, too.
“You just hope you have the right horse,” said Torre, who was fired by three National League teams before winning 1,173 games in pinstripes and co-owning Game On Dude, trained by Baffert, a fourth-place finisher in the 2010 Belmont Stakes.
“When I managed the Yankees, I had the right horses.”
* * *
American Pharoah’s third victory in five weeks included three moments of minuscule doubt.
First, the bay colt broke out of the gate a step slow.
“He kind of sat back when they opened the gate,” Espinoza said.
It may be an exaggeration to say it conjured 2002, when Espinoza and Baffert teamed with War Emblem in a Triple Crown bid.
In the 2002 Belmont, War Emblem just about dropped to his knees out of the gate, dipping to last place, and Baffert knew it was over. Espinoza eventually navigated to the lead but faded badly down the stretch to eighth place, 19 1/2 lengths behind 70-1 longshot winner Sarava.
On Saturday, American Pharoah sped from the less-than-ideal start to the lead in a blink — “in two jumps,” Espinoza said.
“The break’s going to be key,” Baffert stressed Wednesday, when American Pharoah (3-to-5 odds) drew post five, on the inside of the top two perceived challengers, Frosted (post six, 4-to-1 odds) and Materiality (post eight, 5-to-1 odds), and repeated in the barn area Saturday within an hour of the 6:50 p.m. post time.
“We can’t let American Pharoah have an easy lead,” Materiality’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, said before the race.
They failed. Espinoza said that by the first turn, in the lead, he knew he would win.
“We all knew,” Baffert said.
“That’s the best feeling I ever had,” Espinoza said.
Around the one-mile mark, the din of the crowd, many of the 180,000 eyes fixed on infield screens, reined in ever so slightly. The second moment of doubt.
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That’s when Materiality, a horse some thought could have challenged American Pharoah for an early lead, bobbed to a half-length behind.
Materiality’s challenge disintegrated there. The roar — best described by Baffert, “thunderous” — grew again.
Then came Mubtaahij, dubbed a mystery horse before the Derby for his name and his origin. His four wins out of five races were in his native United Arab Emirates. Mubtaahij finished eighth in the Derby, but maybe the five weeks between races would freshen him up for the longer distance.
The Dubai dark horse gave way to Frosted. The gray colt, who showcased late speed for a fourth-place surge at Churchill Downs, tucked in behind American Pharoah on the rail at the top of the stretch.
“I was prepared for somebody coming, because I’ve gone through this so many times,” said Baffert, who saw his failed Triple Crown hopefuls Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) give up the lead down the stretch.
This was the third tiny moment of doubt, and American Pharoah’s opportunity to show his mark of a champion.
Secretariat had his track records. Seattle Slew his undefeated overall mark (9-0) through his Triple Crown. Affirmed was part of the greatest rivalry in racing history with Alydar.
But American Pharoah had done little in the Derby and Preakness to earn a spot in anyone’s list of 10 greatest horses of all time.
In the final eighth of a mile, American Pharoah widened a lead over the odds-on top challenger Frosted. One length, then two. Espinoza cracked the whip.
“He moves like a Ferrari,” Zayat said.
The crowd, deafening for all of the 2 1/2 minutes save the cautious dip during Materiality’s mini-surge, turned euphoric.
Espinoza drove American Pharoah through the finish, five and a half lengths clear of Frosted and past a garden of cameras lined along the rail.
The winning time — 2:26.65 — was the fastest since 1992 at the dirt track nicknamed “Big Sandy.” Secretariat was the only Triple Crown winner to cover the mile and a half faster.
American Pharoah was the second wire-to-wire Belmont winner in 30 years and the quickest to achieve the Triple Crown, in his eighth career start.
Espinoza, the 5-foot-2 former Mexico City bus driver, rose up, balanced himself on the horse with his left arm and raised his right, fist clenched around that whip with his head bowed, eyes on American Pharoah.
Baffert kept his arms crossed, while his wife covered her nose and mouth and his youngest son, Bode, 10, hopped up and down.
“You did it,” wife Jill said were her first words to Baffert. “He didn’t say much.”
Photographers scattered from their phalanx and picked out a green poster with one word printed in all black: PHINALLY.
“Holy shit!” were Espinoza’s first words clearly picked up by a microphone after he hugged an outrider, about one minute after the finish. “Wow. Wow.”
* * *
Two of the three (now four) living Triple Crown jockeys spent Saturday at Belmont Park, too.
Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew, 1977) and Steve Cauthen (Affirmed, 1978) signed autographs at a table near betting windows and concession stands for more than two midday hours, along with owners and trainers of their horses, plus those of Secretariat.
It’s a customary exercise for Cruguet and Cauthen, one they were joined for at least year’s Belmont by Ron Turcotte, who piloted Secretariat in 1973.
Turcotte couldn’t make it Saturday. The 73-year-old, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a Belmont Park racing accident in 1978, stayed home last week following a March car accident.
“In the old days, when the horse didn’t have a chance to win the Triple Crown, nobody even cared,” Cauthen said after signing posters and programs and sitting on a white bench for a CNN interview, four hours before Espinoza joined the Triple Crown jockeys club. “They ask me like I know when it’s going to happen. I have no clue.”
Cauthen does have a sense of what winning a Triple Crown can do for one’s life.
Cauthen’s first Triple Crown mount was the 1978 Kentucky Derby with Affirmed, five days after he turned 18 years old. He became the youngest Triple Crown-winning jockey.
Espinoza, 43, is the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown and financially secure enough that he said he would donate all of his prize money — some $80,000 — for winning the Belmont to the City of Hope cancer hospital back home in California.
“It’s not exactly like it was for me,” Cauthen, who was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1978, said on a day when selfie sticks were banned at Belmont Park and more than 30 food trucks occupied the premises. “There will probably be some opportunities [for Espinoza], advertisements. Who knows, maybe he’ll get a chance to be in a movie. I have no idea, but in racing he’ll be held at a different level.”
Cauthen hoped that if the drought would be broken Saturday it could give a shot in the arm to horse racing, once called the Sport of Kings.
“A lot of people, that was their first sight of racing,” Cauthen said of Affirmed. “The ‘78 Triple Crown drew new fans to the game.”
It may not be so magnetic this time. Just look at Saturday. American Pharoah’s victory was just one turn of a dizzying global sports day.
Barcelona, behind the iconic Lionel Messi, won the Champions League final over Juventus in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
Tiger Woods shot 85 at the Memorial.
An hour after the Belmont, host Canada snatched victory from China in the FIFA Women’s World Cup opener.
Even later, the Tampa Bay Lightning evened the Stanley Cup Final at 1-1 with a 4-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
All of these events were easily viewable online and enhanced by worldwide social media interaction.
“They want to see greatness, that’s why people go to sports,” Baffert said Saturday night, as a loop of the Belmont Stakes played continuously on a flat-screen TV behind him. “LeBron James, we want to see him take it to the hoop and make it happen. That’s basically what Victor did. He took it to them. Everybody knew what we were going to do.”
American Pharoah obviously can’t return for next year’s Triple Crown. There may be too much financial risk in having him ever race again, though Baffert asserted otherwise after the post-race press conference.
Espinoza, the world’s most famous jockey, and Baffert, the world’s most famous trainer, will continue on. But they may go 11 months on the outside of that sports cycle, until next year’s Kentucky Derby.
They didn’t seem to care.
“Everyone came to see something great, and they, we, witnessed it,” Baffert said.