American Pharoah: Crown Jewel of a Career

American Pharoah ended the Triple Crown drought with an easy victory in the 2015 Belmont Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

I am sprinting toward 60, an age that leads me to reflect on all that I was fortunate to see during a sports-writing career that has hit 38 years and to wonder how many stories I might still have the privilege to tell.

I have written for two national newspapers, The New York Times and USA TODAY, as well as other major outlets, allowing me to cover every Triple Crown race and every Breeders’ Cup since 1997. In addition, I worked every Super Bowl from 1996 through 2012, every World Series from 1985-1994, five Winter Olympics and one Summer Games at magical Sydney, Australia.

And then I witnessed a feat last June that surpassed anything I watched before, something more compelling than any Super Bowl-clinching kick, more meaningful to me than any gold-medal performance. My heart leaped with excitement when I watched American Pharoah secure the first Triple Crown in 37 years before a crowd capped at 90,000 delirious fans at Belmont Park.

I was filled with so much nervous energy that my fingers could barely work the keyboard as I told of the magnificent colt with the misspelled name, the curiosity of a short tail and the cotton that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert placed in the 3-year-old’s ears before every race to ease his nerves.

I was an ambitious communications major at Manhattan College in Bronx, N.Y., when Affirmed valiantly fought off Alydar three times in five weeks in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978. One of my dreams was to chronicle the deeds of Affirmed’s successor.

There were so many crushing disappointments that I was starting to fall into the camp of those who believed it might never happen again, or at least not while I was still typing. Human error, the fragility of thoroughbreds, the difficulty of breeding horses with the stamina and durability to go a mile-and-a-quarter in the Derby, a mile-and-three-sixteenths in the Preakness, and a mile-and-a-half in the Belmont Stakes all conspired against the coronation of a 12th Triple Crown champion.

I thought Silver Charm, as gritty a competitor as you will ever see, was home free for Baffert in his bid for racing immortality in the 1997 Belmont Stakes. But he never saw Touch Gold coming as crafty jockey Chris McCarron pounced late. When I saw Kent Desormeaux give Real Quiet the cue to go, go, go the next year in the Belmont, I wondered if they moved a beat too soon. Victory Gallop, under a remarkably patient ride by Gary Stevens, got up in the shadow of the wire, denying Baffert a second consecutive year.

I watched Baffert thwarted a third time in 2002 in a Triple Crown try that was over quickly. A revved-up War Emblem, a youngster intent on being a front-end burner, stumbled out of the gate to open the door for Sarava, a seemingly impossible longshot. Maybe Baffert’s day would never come, I thought. Mine, too, might never come.

The beginning of American Pharoah's Triple Crown journey. (Eclipse Sportswire)
I viewed New York-bred Funny Cide (2003), Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones (2004), Big Brown (2008) and California Chrome (2014) as worthy candidates. But longshot Birdstone made sure there was no Smarty party. Funny Cide and California Chrome had nothing left to give when it counted most. Big Brown was so empty that he was eased. I’ll Have Another’s attempt in 2012 never got that far. He was scratched on the eve of the Belmont with a career-ending tendon injury.

No wonder I viewed American Pharoah with a degree of skepticism when he began his Triple Crown quest. Yes, he was the 2-year-old champion, but an injury had kept him from the acid test that is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and delayed the start of his 3-year-old campaign.

Although his Kentucky Derby preps were impressive, he would have to prove his mettle on the first Saturday in May. He displayed the heart of a champion when he stared down Firing Line in a torrid stretch duel, forcing Firing Line to blink in the final strides.

Pharoah was as sharp as he could be for the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. A heavy downpour that turned the Pimlico Race Course surface to goo could not keep him from a seven-length Preakness romp, another reminder that the great ones run on anything.

Pharoah took command in the opening strides of the Belmont and never let go. He was so powerful as he tore around the final turn that the stretch run turned into a victory parade accompanied by a deafening roar. The historic moment I thought I might never see was at hand, made all the more special by a drought that endured for nearly four decades.

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