Knock over my bucket list—reorder the priorities.
One of my prime objectives—to see a Triple Crown winner in America—was finally achieved yesterday in Belmont Park.
I watched transfixed from the press box as American Pharoah sprouted Pegasus like wings and simply ran away with the Belmont Stakes and the last leg of the Triple crown, the first since Affirmed 37 long years ago.
There is nothing better than witnessing a champion in action and American Pharaoh came back to a reception that rivaled any I have heard in sport as 90,000 rose to their feet, President Bill Clinton among them.
Even in the press box hardened scribes who rarely rise and applaud were on their feet. The length of the home stretch in Belmont is the longest in American racing and every step of it American Pharoah was ahead with the frantic crowd urging him on.
In the 37 years 13 horses had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the Derby and Preakness but failed at the Belmont.
The cry had gone out that the rules needed to be changed, especially after last year’s debacle when the owner of California Chrome who failed in his bid, savaged the other owners and trainers for ganging up on his horse.
I have been at almost every Belmont since I moved to New York in 1986 from California.
In that time I personally witnessed at least ten efforts that failed at the last hurdle.Each year I’d trudge home disappointed and move it near the top of the bucket list again. Now at last I can remove it.
I saw great horses such as Alysheba, Smarty Jones, Real Quiet, Sunday Silence, Funny Cide, War Emblem, Big Brown, California Chrome, I’ll have Another (who never even made it into the gate) and Charismatic, A drum roll of horses who failed the ultimate test and a few others like Silver Charm I missed.
The cry went out that it was unwinnable, that modern horses were not capable because of breeding priorities to go the mile and a half any more, that the era of triple crown winners was over.
Until American Pharaoh.
He destroyed his seven opponents, skipping over the Big Sandy as Belmont is called, in front from flag to wire and pulling further away in the stretch.
The reason sports is so satisfying is that a great drama unfolds in a matter of minutes in the case of horse racing. The two minutes and 26 seconds were as packed with tension and excitement as any sporting event could ever be.
In the end it was smiling trainer Bob Baffert who had come so close before, tearfully remembering his parents and giving all the credit to the horse that stays in the mind.
A great barrier had been broken, one they said could never be breached again. Only 12 horses since the start of the Triple Crown in 1923 had done it—American Pharoah the latest.
Bliss was it to be alive at Belmont on Saturday, June 6th 2015.