ELMONT, N.Y. -- There he was parading about in the winner's circle, the world's greatest athlete, his muscles and veins bulging as if he were hooked up to some overheated generator about to explode.
American Pharoah was sweating profusely under a fading sun, huffing and puffing and flaring his nostrils for dramatic effect after conquering a mile-and-a-half test of character and will that had broken so many lesser horses before him.
The bay colt turned his head just so to shoot a bloodshot glance from his left eye at the unruly admirers fighting to take his picture. I was almost close enough to reach out and touch him, not that I would've ever dared. In the presence of greatness, I couldn't help but think this horse deserved to be written up on Steinbeck's laptop, or Hemingway's, and certainly not mine.
American Pharoah started his Saturday in an old barn with weary green-colored siding, hard by the Hempstead Turnpike and right across the street from a Wendy's. He took his prerace bath behind Barn 1 (with some oblivious motorists whizzing on by, honking at each other), accidentally stepped into the white bucket carrying the soapy water, and ultimately made the long walk toward the paddock and the monument to Secretariat, the ghost all Triple Crown hopefuls chase at the Belmont Stakes.
And then Victor Espinoza took him out of the gate and into the early lead, just like that. Suddenly, the 37 long years that had passed since a teenage wonder named Steve Cauthen guided Affirmed home became a closed chapter in a wildly entertaining -- if unfulfilling -- book. Years after Affirmed beat Alydar in three epic confrontations to win the last Triple Crown before Saturday's, Cauthen was reminded that only five horses ran at the Belmont.
"Actually," he said, "there were really only two."
Actually, there was really only one on the Belmont track Saturday evening, not eight, and he treated this closing Long Island marathon as if it were a walk in Central Park. American Pharoah, the perfect horse with the imperfect spelling, made 90,000 witnesses sound like 900,000. He nearly flipped the building on its ear as he protected his lead around the massive oval and won by 5½ lengths, his triumph punctuated by the sight of Espinoza punching the air with a straight right hand.
As horse stories go, this wasn't Seabiscuit giving all underdogs a lift during the Great Depression, or Secretariat thrilling a nation haunted by Vietnam and Watergate. This was just a powerfully elegant animal, born on Groundhog Day, refusing to surrender to the inevitability of another Groundhog Day finish at the Belmont.
Thirteen horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness since 1978, and 12 of them made it to the Belmont and failed to finish the job. War Emblem stumbled. Smarty Jones got a bum ride from his jockey. California Chrome was nicked out of the gate and beaten by a Preakness-skipping opponent, sending one of Chrome's co-owners on a nationally televised, amateur-hour rant. Funny Cide was swallowed whole by conditions so treacherous that one of his small-town owners later told ESPN.com that the Belmont should've been canceled, and that he should've scratched the horse when it wasn't.
You knew all the stories, all the names and faces of a drought started when the Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the '79 Belmont. The drought began three years before David Letterman debuted as a late-night TV host, and survived his entire career.
American Pharoah wasn't ever going to contribute to one of those stories. The loser on California Chrome, Espinoza, entered 0-for-2 in Triple Crown chances, and the trainer, Bob Baffert, entered 0-for-3. Friday night, Baffert had dinner with his friend, Joe Torre, at Del Frisco's on Sixth Avenue, and the Hall of Fame manager who had won four World Series with the Yankees saw certainty in the trainer's body language and words.
"He was as cool as a cucumber, a lot cooler than I would've been before a Game 7," Torre said as he waited to join Baffert on the stage for the trophy presentation. "He knew this horse was something special from the get-go ... There really was no hesitation in how he was talking about this horse."
Torre had been fired three times as a manager before George Steinbrenner gave him his big break in the Bronx. He mentioned that the fourth time turned out to be the charm for his guy Baffert as well.
The trainer's three Triple Crown near misses, Torre said, "was sort of like getting to the World Series and never winning it. He can finally raise the trophy today."
Before climbing up to the stage, Torre admitted something that every great manager in every sport should admit. "You've got to have the right horses," he said. "Just like the time when I managed the Yankees -- I had the right horses."
Yes, mercifully, Saturday was about the horse instead of the humans. Baffert and Espinoza -- who grew up on a Mexican goat farm and became a teenage bus driver to help pay the bills -- were fascinating characters under the watch of their more fascinating owner, Ahmed Zayat, an Orthodox Jew who made his fortune selling beer in Egypt. Torre didn't need to point out that Zayat has a lot of Steinbrenner in him, defined by his blustery proclamations; emotional, quick-trigger decisions (he fired and rehired Baffert, his own Billy Martin); and dubious business associations.
In fact, after all the coverage of Zayat's high-stakes legal issues and bankruptcy case, and after all the printed claims that he was either slow to pay his debts or in the habit of never paying them at all, it seemed like he was the one about to run the race. So as security guards rushed him through a delirious mob, I barked a question at him about the magnitude of his moment in the sun.
"Forget about me," he shouted back. "I'm happy for this sport. It's all about the horse, a brilliant horse. Now he can find greatness. He was a good horse, and now he's a great horse. He's a legend. It's all about the horse."
After making the 25-mile trip from his Teaneck, New Jersey, home, the toughest bargainer out of Teaneck since that noted NBA tough guy, David Stern, had made the appropriate concession at the appropriate time. It was never about Zayat, or Baffert, or Espinoza, and when it was over all three were in complete agreement on that.
"He's the one who did it," Baffert said of his horse. "We were basically passengers."
And what an indelible ride it was. American Pharoah won the Derby by a length, and then blew away the field in the slop at the Preakness. On his prerace walk to Barn 1 at the Belmont, Baffert jokingly complained he didn't get the rain that he wanted and that some weathermen had predicted. He looked up toward the sunshiny skies and said, "Too late now."
But American Pharoah didn't need a muddy track, and he didn't need the kind of gut-check rival that pushed Affirmed the way Alydar did in 1978, back when Cauthen compared the two competitors to Ali and Frazier. All this beautiful horse needed, really, was for the human beings to get the hell out of his way.
American Pharoah was born to be the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. If you stood next to him in the winner's circle Saturday, and watched him flex his muscles and celebrate his tired, glorious self, you didn't need some weathered horse whisperer to tell you that.