It took nearly four decades, but a horse has once again attained the honor that some call the most difficult achievement in sports: American Pharoah, after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, ran to victory in the Belmont Stakes as well.
He's the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. With his win, a total of 12 horses have now achieved the feat.
American Pharoah took the lead early in the mile-and-a-half long race, with Frosted close on his tail. From there, the colt never gave up the front position.
At the halfway point, he had the advantage over Materiality by three-quarters of a length. But then he kicked away, opening up a two-length lead at the top of the final stretch, as Frosted moved back into second.
And instead of flagging in the last moments of the race, American Pharoah opened up even more distance as he made his way to triumph. His final time was 2:26.65 — with a 5 1/2 length advantage.
On his way to that emphatic win, American Pharoah overcame a marked disadvantage: he was the only horse running in the Belmont Stakes who also ran in both the Derby and the Preakness. That meant he was racing against better-rested horses.
Over the years, as NPR's Joel Rose reports, that disparity has led to grumbling from horse-racing fans and professionals — and even some skepticism that any horse, under current rules, could again win the Triple Crown. After California Chrome fell short of the achievement last year, his owner expressed his frustration:
"I'm 61 years old, and I'll never see, in my lifetime, I will never see another Triple Crown winner, because [of] the way they do this," said California Chrome's owner, Steve Coburn, after the race.
The winner at last year's Belmont was Tonalist. He didn't run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, so he had plenty of time to rest before the Belmont. Coburn said that should not be allowed.
"It's all or nothing," Coburn said last year. "Because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people, and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward's way out in my opinion. This is a coward's way out."
Coburn later apologized. But he put his finger on something real. Of the seven horses challenging American Pharoah in this year's Belmont, only one raced in the Preakness three weeks ago, meaning the other horses have had at least two extra weeks to rest.
Since 1978, 13 horses won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and choked at the Belmont, and many pointed towards fresher opponents as a factor. But calls for a rule change might die down for a while, now that American Pharoah has roundly beaten his well-rested opponents.
Previous legs of the Triple Crown had cemented American Pharoah's status as favorite. He had close company for much of his Kentucky Derby run, but pulled away for a dramatic, energetic finish. At the Preakness Stakes, a driving rain turned the course into a muddy mess, and American Pharoah destroyed his opponents in the slop: he recorded an impressive seven-length victory.
Now, his resounding Belmont win is a triumph for owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert, a Hall of Famer who can now add the Triple Crown to his long list of victories.
And it may feel particularly sweet to jockey Victor Espinoza, who has fallen just short of the Triple Crown twice before. In 2002, he rode War Emblem as the Triple Crown contender came in 8th in the Belmont; last year, he rode California Chrome to 4th.
On Saturday, before a roaring crowd of 90,000, he rode American Pharoah into the history books.