Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 7, 2015

History And Redemption At The Big Sandy

The eight-horse Belmont Stakes field was in the deep stretch on Saturday with American Pharoah, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes leading them down the lane. A two-length margin when they came off the final turn was close to four and still growing. With the outcome no longer in doubt, track announcer Larry Collmus made the call racing fans had reason to think they might never hear again. “And here it is, the 37-year wait is over,” exclaimed Collmus, as the full-throated roar of 90,000 spectators grew ever louder in the background. “American Pharoah is finally the one. American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”

The bay colt with the misspelled name, who runs with earplugs because he is distracted by crowd noise, crossed the finish line at the massive mile and a half track known as the Big Sandy 5½ lengths ahead of Frosted, with Keen Ice and Mubtaahij another two lengths up the track. It was a deserved win by a deserving thoroughbred, who now takes his place among the elite horses in American racing history. The champion 2-year old last year and certain to be the Horse of the Year this season, American Pharoah has now won seven consecutive races. In sweeping the Triple Crown series he defeated not only all comers, but a compressed racing calendar for which horses are no longer bred or trained; and he did so with three distinctly different runs.

Sent off as the Derby favorite on the first Saturday in May, American Pharoah settled into third place for much of the race, while stablemate Dortmund and Firing Line set the pace. Starting from an outside post in the 20-horse field, jockey Victor Espinoza was forced to take his mount very wide around the first turn and down the back stretch at Churchill Downs. Still running on the outside it was not until the horses were making their final turn for home that Espinoza asked American Pharoah to run. Racing down the middle of the track, the favorite battled Firing Line until the final hundred yards, when Espinoza’s horse pulled away to win by a length.

Two weeks later at Pimlico a driving thunderstorm swept across the grounds even as the horses were being saddled and led out for the post parade. With the track quickly turning into slop, Espinoza altered his strategy and decided to go immediately for the lead. American Pharoah broke cleanly from the one hole and bolted to the front. Mr. Z kept pace the first time past the clubhouse, but by midway through the first turn American Pharoah led by daylight. As they finished their charge down the backstretch Mr. Z, Dortmund and Divining Rod appeared to close on the leader, and some in the stands no doubt thought he was going to be caught. But American Pharoah was merely coasting, and when Espinoza urged him into a higher gear he again pulled away, crossing under the wire 7 lengths clear.

Still there were doubters on Long Island this Saturday. They pointed to the off track in Baltimore and the fact that American Pharoah was the only horse in the Preakness field known to enjoy running in the mud. They pointed to his pedigree, which especially on his mother’s side suggested he was ill-suited for the mile and one half distance of the Belmont. Dosage Index is a measure of a thoroughbred’s stamina based on pedigree, with a lower number indicative of a greater affinity for longer races. American Pharoah’s Dosage Index of 4.33 was the highest in the field, and higher than all but four previous Belmont winners. Most of all they pointed to the grueling Triple Crown schedule of three races in five weeks, and the fact that the favorite was the only Belmont entrant to have run all three races.

In 2:26 and change American Pharoah silenced the doubters and became the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown. A step slow out of the gate, he surged ahead within the first fifty yards. Materiality, the horse expected to force the pace, instead allowed the leader to set comfortable fractions. On the far turn Mubtaahij and Frosted challenged briefly only to be turned aside, as American Pharoah, in the call by Collmus, made “his run for glory” down the long Belmont stretch. In the end his margin was the fourth largest in Belmont history and his time of 2:26.65 was second only to the 2:24 world record set by Secretariat in 1973.

The horse’s historic performance had to be especially sweet for his jockey and trainer. Espinoza was the first jockey to take a mount into the Belmont starting gate with a chance at the Triple Crown for a third time. Just last year he was aboard California Chrome, who came up short against Tonalist, one of the fresh shooters in the 2014 Belmont. In 2002 Espinoza rode War Emblem to victory in the Derby and Preakness, but when the gate opened at the Big Sandy his horse stumbled and went to its knees. War Emblem’s Triple Crown hopes were dashed in the very first seconds of the Belmont.

A few years after that disastrous day Espinoza’s career went into eclipse. For six racing seasons he found himself with fewer and fewer mounts. A jockey who had twice finished third in total earnings was racing claimers. Just two years ago he decided that he wanted a better finish to his career. With renewed focus and a new agent Espinoza built a second act as a professional rider.

When War Emblem stumbled with Espinoza aboard it brought a quick end to trainer Bob Baffert’s third attempt at the Triple Crown. In 1997 the Baffert-trained Silver Charm had a chance at history, but lost to Touch Gold by half a length. In 1998 Baffert became the first trainer to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness back-to-back when Real Quiet raced to a pair of wins. But that June on Long Island jockey Kent Desormeaux was roundly criticized for setting too fast a pace with Real Quiet, who was caught at the wire by Victory Gallop in the closest finish in Belmont history.

In sports, as in life, second chances are always welcomed but never guaranteed. When he failed aboard first War Emblem and then California Chrome, Victor Espinoza had no way of knowing if he would ever get another opportunity to race for a Triple Crown. So too for Bob Baffert, in the decade and more since his third try turned to dust in the starting gate. Given another chance with a superhorse, both made the most of it. At 43 Espinoza is the oldest jockey, and at 62 Baffert is the second oldest trainer, to win the Triple Crown. Forever linked to the horse with the misspelled regal name, Espinoza and Baffert will now always be horse racing royalty, sharing a page in the sport’s long history with Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.

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