The gods are pleased.
Now we know why this took so long, why it had been 37 years since a horse won the Triple Crown of horse racing. It's because the right horse hadn't come along in all that time.
Good horses have tried to win. So have very good horses. Even special horses. But they all fell short and that's because this is something so difficult, so demanding that it can be accomplished only by those who are among the greatest horses that ever lived. Over these many years and 13 failed Triple Crown attempts, it has seemed like the gods -- call them the gods of the Triple Crown -- would not allow the pretenders to cross the wire first in the Belmont Stakes. They knew, as we all do now, that the Funny Cides, Real Quiets, War Emblems, Pleasant Colonys et al were not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat, Affirmed, Citation and the eight other greats who made racing history at Belmont Park.
They were waiting for the right one, and they found him Saturday at Belmont Park in American Pharoah, the horse who is so perfect the only thing wrong with him is that his name is spelled incorrectly.
After his first start, the one at Del Mar where he just didn't run his race, it was clear that this horse was a cut well above his peers. As a maiden, he won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and then the Grade 1 Front Runner. Despite missing the Breeders' Cup, he was named the 2-year-old champion, absolutely the right call by the voters.
He won the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby in romps. He won the Kentucky Derby, albeit by only a length, in what now looks like one of the poorer races of his career. The real American Pharoah showed up in the Preakness, where he ran his rivals off their feet, demolishing the field by seven lengths.
He had clearly proved that he was the best 3-year-old race horse on the planet, but still there were questions coming into the Belmont Stakes. You couldn't blame those who said he would be beaten. You watch Triple Crown failure after Triple Crown failure and you begin to believe it will never happen again. But what the doubters failed to take into account was that this horse was different, that he was worthy.
They also underestimated his trainer, Bob Baffert. He had traveled this route before, suffering through three losses in three attempts to win the Triple Crown, one of them being maybe the worst beat in racing history. Baffert may still have nightmares over Real Quiet losing the Belmont and the Triple Crown by a nose. But like his horse, Baffert is simply better than his competition. In a modern age when horsemen are scared to work their horses hard or run them without at least five weeks off between starts, he is the one person left in this sport whose horses keep going race after race no matter what is thrown in their path.
That was obvious early Saturday evening at Belmont Park, where American Pharoah sauntered around the racetrack as though he was as fresh as an Andrew Dice Clay monologue. The mile-and-a-half race coming at the tail end of a three-races-in-five-weeks schedule is supposed to be the most exacting challenge in horse racing. It was anything but for American Pharoah. For him, there was never an anxious moment. He looked like a winner every step of the way and he never once looked like he was even trying.
"The way he hit the ground, you couldn't even feel how fast he was moving," winning jockey Victor Espinoza told NBC after the race.
American Pharoah won by 5½ lengths. It could have been a lot more.
This was the group, arguably the most exclusive club in sports, coming into the race: Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
Now there's a 12th name on the list of Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah. He didn't luck into this, he didn't beat an inferior collection of rivals; there was nothing fluky about anything he did over these past five weeks. He accomplished what some had thought could not be accomplished because he is a great horse, one worthy of joining a club that accepts only immortals.