ELMONT, N.Y. - It was 6:16 p.m. Saturday evening when the star of a show that had been running for 37 years and was in desperate need of a proper ending emerged from Barn 4 at the intersection of Secretariat Ave. and Count Fleet Rd. in the stable area of old Belmont Park. American Pharoah, hinting at what was about to go down in the 147th Belmont Stakes, led the other seven horses from the assembly barn before making a U-turn into the tunnel that would lead to the teeming paddock where the only calm soul was the colt that was 30 minutes from horse-racing legend.
Bob Baffert had been passing the final minutes before the final leg of his fourth chance at the Triple Crown making small talk just outside the barn. His four children from his first marriage were there. So was his 10-year-old son, Bode, with second wife Jill, the former Louisville television personality he met during one of his frequent visits to Churchill Downs.
The horse Baffert had told owner Ahmed Zayat long ago was the best he has ever trained had come out of Barn 1 at 5:40 for his prerace bath. A grassy area with tall trees by now-quiet Hempstead Turnpike, Barn 1 was separated from the traffic and the fans by a wrought-iron fence and a hedge. It had been the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner's getaway since his arrival on Tuesday.
Pharoah walked up a dirt path behind the barns to meet up with a group of horses that had run against him a collective eight times and never come close to beating him. They would come no closer on this evening.
"I want the same track Secretariat got," Baffert said. "How do I get that?"
He asked about the rain that never developed; the moisture that might have tightened the track.
"We are at the mercy of the starter now," Baffert said philosophically, knowing he and his team had considered every detail but fate.
"There's always some crazy guy doing something," Baffert said when asked if he thought AP could clear the field without any duress.
"When you're the target and they work in tandem . . . " Baffert said, knowing the history without having to explain it.
Finally, before heading off to follow his horse, he said: "The less thinking the better, but it's a lot of pressure."
This horse, the horse we've all been waiting for, felt no pressure before the race and zero pressure during the race. AP was through the tunnel under the grandstand that he would leave shaking in 20 minutes to the sounds of Frank Sinatra and "New York, New York."
The horse, with the hopes of so many who watched this epic drama unfold for so long with so many bad endings and $9,444,395 bet on him to win, was not quite ready for the start, leaning backward slightly when the bell rang and the stall doors opened. No matter. American Pharoah instantly sprung forward like the athletic marvel he is and assumed a lead he would never give up within the first few yards of a race that is exactly 2,640 yards, one mile and a half lap around the longest racetrack in America.
When the first quarter-mile fraction of 24.06 seconds went up on the tote board, the result was just about inevitable. The surface had been playing extremely fast all day. This wonderful horse was majestically alone, going at a very slow pace, emulating his tour de force workouts and gallops that had some of the sharpest observers of the sport shaking their heads in amazement all spring. The last horse American Pharoah saw in the Belmont Stakes was in the starting gate.
"On the first turn, that was the best feeling I ever had," jockey Victor Espinoza said.
One quarter mile after another, :24.06, :24.77, :24:58, 24.58, :24.34 and finally, :24.32, so smooth, so powerful, so seemingly effortless.
Frosted took a run at American Pharoah with 200 yards to go. Espinoza took out his whip, used it three times and then put it away.
"I grabbed the reins and he just took off," the jockey said.
American Pharoah ran the final 100 yards as fast as the first 100 yards when the race was actually won.
"The 37-year wait is over," track announcer Larry Collmus screamed in those final yards. "American Pharoah is finally the one. American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown."
With that, at precisely 6:55, Belmont Park exploded, 37 years worth of emotion unleashed. There was no targeting, nothing crazy - just a great horse running into history. The sharing of the moment was something anybody who was there will never forget: not the sound, not the feeling, not the overwhelming sensory overload you get when you experience something you had come to believe might just never happen again.
"Ride him with extreme confidence, put him on the lead, go for it," Baffert had told his jockey. "If he doesn't make it, don't worry about it, we tried."
American Pharoah made it by 5 1/2 lengths in 2:26.65. It was the fourth-largest margin by a Triple Crown winner in the Belmont Stakes. The largest margins? Count Fleet (25) in 1943 and Secretariat by the legendary 31 in 1973.
Before heading for the winner's circle where the three-sided, sterling-silver Cartier Triple Crown Trophy, the one that had been flown from Louisville to New York 13 times since 1978 only to disappear back into hiding every time, was awarded, Espinoza took American Pharoah on a slow ride back down the homestretch, the fans in every section rising, screaming and crying for this curtain call, 18 miles east of Broadway.
"We all wanted it," Zayat said. "We wanted it for the sport. So I'm happy for the horse, for the fans and for this man."
That would be Baffert, the same man who three years before had suffered a heart attack in Dubai that could have been fatal, the same man who later that spring had two different horses lead for all but 150 yards of the Triple Crown's 6,930 yards and finish second in all three.
"Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?" Baffert had asked late on the night of the 2012 Belmont at King Umberto, a restaurant just 2.2 miles east of Belmont Park on Hempstead Turnpike. "I need a Triple Crown for seconds."
He now has a Triple Crown. And nobody deserves it more. In a sport with few risktakers, Baffert is fearless. He is also smart and detail-oriented while assembling a great team.
"I don't know if I'll ever have another horse like that," Baffert said. "I've had some great horses. I'm just going to enjoy this one. And next time you see him, believe me, I will have him ready."
American Pharoah's stud rights have already been sold. It is an extreme longshot that he would run in 2016, but there is no reason he can't run in a few months, perhaps at the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and the Travers in Saratoga and, maybe, at Parx in September for the Pennsylvania Derby with so much bonus money just to show up. He definitely should run in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic this fall at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, the home of horse racing and just around the corner from where American Pharoah will almost certainly begin his stallion career next winter.
Meanwhile, the horse was flown back to Louisville late yesterday morning where he settled into his familiar stall in Barn 33, the Twin Spires across the track lit up at night in the yellow and turquoise colors of Zayat Stables. American Pharoah is scheduled to be paraded at Churchill during this Saturday night's card. The colt will be at Churchill for two weeks before heading back to his Southern California base.
Baffert had a 9 p.m. King Umberto reservation Saturday. He did not make it back to Barn 1 until then, the news conference at the Theatre in the Belmont Park basement so jammed they were only letting people out. His horse of a lifetime had gotten his bath at 8:07 before Baffert even began the walk back where he got stopped every few feet to get congratulations from friends, fans, fellow trainers, anybody and everybody.
King Umberto had an updated menu Saturday night, with "American Pharoah" - "lobster, filet of sole, scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels scampi style with a touch of marinara" - and a "Triple Crown of Veal."
American Pharoah had indeed become the 12th Triple Crown winner and just like the previous four - Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed - the colt led all the way in the Belmont Stakes. Since his bizarre debut at Del Mar last August when he became unraveled in the paddock and finished fifth, American Pharoah has won seven straight stakes by a combined 35 3/4 lengths at six different race tracks - Del Mar, Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park (twice), Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park.
After an injury just before last year's Breeders' Cup, American Pharoah was rested for two long months. When he finally got back to training early this year, he was way behind the others pointing for the Derby. He gutted out the last 300 yards of the Derby, catching up to all those horses that had such a head start and then dominated all 4,730 yards of the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Off to the side of that grassy area under a huge tree, a table was set Saturday night with six bottles of champagne and 20 glasses, a place to celebrate quietly. Yesterday morning, Bob Baffert invited everybody inside the fences to pet American Pharoah and take pictures with this horse, that rarest of gems, a Triple Crown winner.