By Morgan Prewitt
The first Saturday in May always brings the excitement and pageantry of the Kentucky Derby.
While the majority of the 170,000 or more fans packed into iconic Churchill Downs sip mint juleps and enjoy the atmosphere, horse racing enthusiasts have one question lingering in the back of their minds, “Will this finally be the year?”
After 37 years of waiting since Affirmed last swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes to capture the Triple Crown, the racing world finally got its answer in a horse with a misspelled name and half a tail.
American Pharoah’s Triple Crown triumph can be described in multitude of ways, from his second-fastest Belmont Stakes time to win the Triple Crown to his record as the most lightly raced Triple Crown champion of all time.
But the importance of his victory to racing fans runs much deeper than any record he set, American Pharoah represents an end to nearly four decades of heart break and a connection to the legends of horse racing’s past.
The historic significance of the moment was not lost on American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat.
“This is for the sport, “ Zayat said as he accepted the Triple Crown trophy. “It had been 37 years. We need stars. I’m so thrilled, honored, privileged, humbled and excited. This is all for you. ”
As jockey Victor Espinoza guided him up and down the stretch in front of the Belmont grandstand after his Belmont Stakes win, American Pharoah took his place in the history books as modern racing’s legend alongside the greats of the past, like Secretariat and Seattle Slew.
Although modern racing has seen its share of champions, the accomplishments of modern horses and past legends were impossible to compare because they didn’t achieve the same feats.
American Pharoah bridged the gap between the past and present by proving a modern horse can win the Triple Crown, becoming the only horse besides Secretariat to end a Triple Crown drought of longer than a decade.
Before American Pharoah, twelve horses had captured the heart of the public with wins in the Derby and the Preakness before falling short in the Belmont, the Triple Crown’s longest leg at a mile and ½.
In 2004, Smarty Jones came into the Belmont after gliding to a dominant 11 and 1/2 length victory in the Preakness and sprinting away with a win in the Derby.
The Belmont crowd roared as Smarty Jones entered the homestretch with the lead, but the cheers soon turned to groans as Birdstone chased down Smarty Jones in the last eighth of mile to win by a length.
Just last year, Espinosa rolled into Belmont aboard California Chrome who swept the Derby and the Preakness with hard-fought wins. But, California Chrome’s Triple Crown dreams ended with a fourth place finish in the Belmont.
After following the failure of the twelve Triple Crown hopefuls who came before him, racing fans approached American Pharoah’s success in the first two jewels with a grain of salt, expecting another disappointment.
Instead of fading in the Belmont, American Pharoah outclassed his opponents with his most dominant performance of the series, going wire-to-wire while recording the second fastest Belmont Stakes time behind Secretariat in 1973 to win a Triple Crown.
In a sport characterized by champions, American Pharoah earned his place among the greats with the accomplishment of a feat many had deemed impossible.