Finally – A Triple Crown Winner!

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By Nancy Brannon, with contributions from Jennifer Hoyt at Oaklawn

Saturday June 6, 2015, the Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah – history that will long be remembered by horse folk and non-horse folk alike. American Pharoah is only the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, and The Belmont Stakes. And American Pharoah is the only Triple Crown Winner to precede his triple wins with an Arkansas Derby win, making him a Quadruple Crown Winner – or a Quintuple Crown winner if you count the Rebel Stakes.

From the inaugural race in 1936, there have been some impressive winners of the Arkansas Derby who went on to capture one or more of the Triple Crown races: 1980 winner Temperence Hill and 1998’s Victory Gallop both went on to capture the Belmont Stakes. Sunny’s Halo won the 1983 Kentucky Derby as did Smarty Jones in 2004. Elocutionist (1976), Tank’s Prospect (1985), Pine Bluff (1992), Smarty Jones (2004), Afleet Alex (2005), Curlin (2007) all won the Preakness Stakes. But none have won the five-in-a row as American Pharoah did.

The 12 Triple Crown winners, in descending order by year, are: Affirmed (1978), Seattle Slew (1977), Secretariat (1973), Citation (1948), Assault (1946), Count Fleet (1943), Whirlaway (1941), War Admiral (1937), Omaha (1935), Gallant Fox (1930), Sir Barton (1919).

Credit for the term Triple Crown has often been ascribed to Charles Hatton, a columnist for the Daily Racing Form, who started using the term after Gallant Fox won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1930. But it was The New York Times that began the regular use of Triple Crown. The Times first used “triple crown” to describe the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 1923, in a year when the Preakness preceded the Derby.

Rebel Stakes
In March American Pharoah made his 2015 debut after being named the country’s champion 2-year-old male in 2014. Making his first start since September 27, 2014 and his first start outside his home state of California, American Pharoah proved his worth with a dominating 6 ¼ length victory in the $750,000 Rebel Stakes on March 14, 2015. An estimated crowd of 30,000 was on hand to witness the 2014 Champion Juvenile Male splash home a winner in a final time of 1:45 3/5 for 1 1/16 on a track labeled sloppy by post time.

Breaking from post four under jockey Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah was the quickest out of the gate. He bobbled at the start and dislodged his right front shoe, but quickly recovered to make an easy lead. He proceeded to take full control of the race through easy fractions of :24 2/5 and :49 3/5 for the first half mile. The champion, who had maintained a comfortable one length advantage down the backstretch, began to shake clear of his competition entering the stretch and widened his lead through the stretch to complete 1 1/16 miles over a sloppy track in 1:45.78. The sloppy track would turn out to be good preparation for an important race to come.

“This horse, he does things effortlessly,” Baffert said. “It wasn’t really taxing on him. It turned out all right. He didn’t have to go too fast early. I thought he ran great.”

Arkansas Derby
American Pharoah’s 2015 winning streak began at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas. American Pharoah got his ticket to the Kentucky Derby as he won the 79th running of the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 11, 2015 by an easy eight lengths with Victor Espinoza riding. He completed the 1 1/8 mile race in 1:48 2/5, the fastest Arkansas Derby time since 2003.

Early in the year folks saw something special in this 3-year-old. “He's an amazing horse,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “With the way he works, he's always been a professional horse from the start. We were hoping he could do something like that and he showed it today. We’re so excited about him,” Baffert said after winning the Arkansas Derby.

“He’s the best horse I’ve ever owned,” owner Ahmed Zayat said.

Under rider Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah equaled the third-largest margin of victory in Arkansas Derby history, and his winning time of 1:48.52 – was the fastest since Sir Cherokee (1:48.39) in 2003.

 “The way this horse runs is unbelievable. He was very impressive,” said Espinoza, who picked up his second Kentucky Derby victory last year with California Chrome. “He’s an amazing horse. The first time I rode him, (trainer) Bob (Baffert) said he’s the real deal. Bob’s a Hall of Famer, so he knows. Bob was confident, so that made me confident. He is a tremendous horse. He has a lot of talent and he loves to run. This is an amazing horse.”

American Pharoah headed into the Kentucky Derby as a favorite and one of the points leaders. Prior to the Derby, the Zayat Stables homebred, by their 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile/ Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman – 2012, already had four wins from five starts and had earned $1,411,500 by mid-April.

Kentucky Derby
Under clear skies and a beautiful first Saturday in May, American Pharoah captured the 141st Kentucky Derby. The race was a “nail-biter” with American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund (also trained by Baffert) all battling head-to-head down the stretch, with American Pharoah pulling ahead just before the finish. Firing Line finished second, and Dortmund, third. A record-breaking crowd of 170,513 fans jammed Churchill Downs to watch the 141st Run for the Roses. The horse covered the 1 ¼ miles over a fast track in 2:03.02 for his fifth consecutive win and his fifth victory in six career races.

The Preakness
It was on to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the 140th Preakness on May 16. A record crowd of 131,680 fans, surpassing the previous record set last year of 123,469, watched American Pharoah win the 140th Preakness Stakes, setting the stage for his try for the Triple Crown.

This time it was a very sloppy track, but American Pharoah registered a seven-length victory. “He’s just an amazing horse. Everybody talks about the greatness and he’s starting to show it. To me, they have to prove it. Today, the way he did it. He’s just so fast, the way he ran,” Baffert said. “It was like poetry in motion.”

After breaking a bit awkwardly from his No. 1 post position, American Pharoah was hustled to the lead by Espinoza in the run along the front-stretch. He continued to show the way around the turn and along the backstretch, chased by long shot Mr. Z and others, including Firing Line and Baffert-trained Dortmund. But American Pharoah maintained his uncontested lead around the far turn after posting fractions of 22.90 seconds, 46.49 and 1:11.42 for the first six furlongs of the 1 3/16-mile classic and sprinted clear through the stretch run.

The Belmont Stakes
Perhaps American Pharoah showed some of his best work on June 6 on an idyllic Saturday at Belmont Park. Under a perfectly calculated ride by Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah led the field from start to finish in the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, drawing away in the stretch to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

 “He walked into the gate amazing,” Espinoza said. “He was ready today. As soon as I sat in the saddle, there was so much power and so much energy this horse had. He trained perfect, just unbelievable coming into the race.”

Horse and rider glided through comfortable splits of 24.06 seconds for the opening quarter-mile and 48.83 for the half. Without any urging, American Pharoah continued his effortless march down the backstretch with 5-1 choice Materiality lurking on his outside a length behind in second, and Mubtaahij, Frosted, Keen Ice, and Madefromlucky looming four abreast just off the top two.

After three-quarters in 1:13.41, the crowd's decibel level rose steadily. A mile went in 1:37.99, and the noise intensified. Rounding the far turn, Espinoza still had yet to ask American Pharoah for run, but the bay colt maintained a steadfast advantage over his competitors as Materiality dropped back and Frosted and Mubtaahij emerged as his most ardent challengers.

Still not asked for his best run at the top of the stretch, American Pharoah kept his rivals at bay. Shortly into the stretch run, Mubtaahij dropped back, leaving only Frosted with a chance to thwart the horse’s date with destiny.

Finally, sensing the magnitude of the situation, Espinoza gave him a nudge. The outcome was never in doubt! American Pharoah took off, pulling away to win by a widening 5 ½ lengths and completing the distance in 2:26.65, the sixth-fastest in Belmont history and second-fastest for a Triple Crown winner since Secretariat set the track record of 2:24 in 1973.

After the Triple Crown
What’s next for American Pharoah? Owner Zayat has said he wants to race the horse through the end of the year to help the sport attract more fans. At a June 10, 2015 media session at Santa Anita Park, Baffert said the ultimate goal for American Pharoah is the October 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, the StarTribune reported. Read more about American Pharoah at:


Information about the Triple Crown from Bennett Liebman, The Rail blog

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