The son of Pioneer of the Nile led the field from start to finish in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, drawing away in the stretch to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 and end a drought that had seen the hopes of 13 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners end in disappointment.
The milestone victory in the 147th ‘Test of the Champion’ was sweet redemption for the colt’s connections, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, as the pair had accumulated five failed Triple Crown bids between them.
“It’s very emotional,” said Baffert, who trains American Pharoah for Zayat Stables. “What a feeling. It’s probably going to take a few days to sink in.”
In 2002, Baffert and Espinoza teamed up with War Emblem in the Belmont, but the son of Our Emblem finished eighth after stumbling at the break.
“Wow, wow, I only can tell you,” said Espinoza, who formerly worked as a bus driver in Mexico. “It’s just an amazing thing. He was ready today. As soon as I sat in the saddle, there was so much power and so much energy this horse had.”
Visions of War Emblem were immediately erased when American Pharoah broke a touch slow out of the gate but quickly assumed control of the early lead, angling to the rail as the field of eight 3-year-olds entered the clubhouse turn of the 1 ½-mile race.
Frosted, winner of the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, ran valiantly to finish second, two lengths ahead of third-place finisher Keen Ice, but was no match for American Pharoah. The two had met five weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby, in which Frosted finished fourth, beaten 3 ½ lengths.
Owner Ahmed Zayat said after the win that from day one they knew they had a special horse.
“When he was at the farm, every single person, since he was born, has told me that this horse stood out at the farm,” he said. “I was told, ‘Mr. Z, I can tell you unequivocally, this is the fastest horse I ever put a saddle on. This one is special.’”
Zayat said he plans to race American Pharoah in the future, but when and where has yet to be decided.
“It is my genuine desire, as someone who loves horses, as a fan, to race him to race him as long as I possibly could, at least - at least - until he finishes [as a] three-year-old,” he said. “I’m going to leave it to Bob to prep him as he has done brilliantly through the whole career, the right way.“
“The only races after we freshen him up a little bit, the only options out there are basically starting the end of July or something,” said Baffert. “Right now we’re just going to love on him and enjoy him. We’ll figure something out.”
• Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey reported Sunday morning that Lane’s End Racing and Dell Ridge Farm’s Honor Code emerged from his dominant victory in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Metropolitan Handicap in good order.
The 4-year-old A.P. Indy ridgling captured his third graded stakes victory and first Grade 1 in last-to-first fashion, sweeping past the field with a dramatic stretch run to win by 3 ¾ lengths under jockey Javier Castellano.
“He seemed to come back really good,” McGaughey said. “He had been training really well around here and I thought they would know he was in there, but I didn’t know he would dominate the way he did.”
The next major race for older horses in New York is the Grade 2, $500,000 Suburban Handicap on July 4 at Belmont, though McGaughey has no set plan for Honor Code.
McGaughey’s first career Met Mile victory came two hours before American Pharoah became the 12th Triple Crown champion with a win in the Belmont Stakes to cap NYRA’s inaugural Belmont Stakes Racing Festival presented by DraftKings.
• Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin had a big day on Saturday, sending out Wedding Toast to victory in the Grade 1, $1 million Ogden Phipps and Frosted to a second-place finish in the Belmont.
A homebred daughter of Street Sense owned by Godolphin Racing, Wedding Toast led the Ogden Phipps field from start to finish, besting last year’s Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Untapable by five lengths on the wire.
Later on the card, Frosted sat just off the pace in the Belmont and took a run at American Pharoah in upper stretch, but was no match for his Triple Crown-winning rival, who drew off to win by 5 ½ lengths.
“It was a great day of racing, to have a Triple Crown winner,” McLaughlin added. “We were second best, no excuses. We got paid for second this time, last time we thought we were second best but finished fourth [in the Kentucky Derby].”
According to McLaughlin, both runners came back to the barn in good shape.
• Unable to prevent a Triple Crown winner for the third time, Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito was full of praise for the feat accomplished by American Pharoah in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
The Zayat Stables homebred became the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and just the 12th in thoroughbred history. Because of the drought and the stress of running three races in five weeks, arguments have been made to alter the Triple Crown schedule.
“We watched a great horse run yesterday,” Zito said Sunday morning. “It’s the hardest thing to do in sports and when a great horse comes along, you’ll see it. Well, a great horse came along.”
Each of Zito’s two Belmont Stakes victories, with Birdstone in 2004 and Da’ Tara in 2008, dashed previous Triple Crown hopes. He was not as lucky this year with Mossarosa’s Grade 2-placed Frammento, who made a move to get into contention on the far turn under Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith but flattened out and wound up fifth, 15 lengths behind American Pharoah.
Zito said Frammento will stay at Belmont for a few days before returning to his string at the Oklahoma training track in Saratoga Springs later this week.
“Mike loved him. Mike said he’s just learning,” Zito said. “We’ll just keep pressing on, wait for the summer, head up to Saratoga and pick one of those races out,” said Zito. “Knowing us, we may show up in the Travers.”
The 146th running of the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes will take place August 29.