by Tom Pedulla
The New York Racing Association is presenting a weekly series of diaries to help celebrate the 150th Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 9 at Belmont Park. “In Their Own Words” features prominent owners, trainers and jockeys as they re-live some of the most stirring moments in the rich history of the “Test of the Champion.”
The series opened with trainer Todd Pletcher reflecting on history-making filly Rags to Riches (2007), followed by Cot Campbell describing Palace Malice’s 2013 triumph as the “mother of great moments” for him.
Ogden Phipps II told of how much Easy Goer’s romp meant to his famous racing family when they denied Sunday Silence’s Triple Crown bid in 1989.
Marylou Whitney, celebrated as the “Queen of Saratoga” and one of the most prominent women in racing history, re-lived Birdstone’s upset of Triple Crown threat Smarty Jones in 2004. Steve Cauthen wrote of the thrill of being 18 years old and riding Affirmed past Alydar three times for the Triple Crown in 1978 in one of the great rivalries in all of sports and Julie Krone recounted her barrier-breaking 1993 win aboard Colonial Affair.
This week’s edition features Ahmed Zayat, who recounts the 2015 romp that allowed the great American Pharoah to end the longest drought in Triple Crown history.
Still to come:
Here is the seventh installment:
By Ahmed Zayat with Tom Pedulla
It was 4 a.m. I could not sleep.
I had high hopes that American Pharoah, a horse our family bred and owned, would become the 12th Triple Crown champion by winning the 2015 Belmont Stakes later that day. He had spoiled us by doing everything asked of him to that point. I knew he had the talent and the stamina to carry his speed for a mile and a half. I knew he the mind needed to make history. Nothing bothered him. He was as sweet as they get, an absolute pet.
I had one major concern that made more sleep impossible – the track condition at Belmont Park. The surface is always well maintained, but my fear involved the possibility of a wet, heavy, drying-out track that might tire even American Pharoah.
So, I got up, left the RV, and walked the huge track, seeing what I could see and all the while thinking about the position we were in. As much as I believed in our horse, I knew the odds were stacked against us. There was a very good reason no horse had won the Triple Crown in 37 years. It is that difficult.
I was excited and anxious at the same time. I tried to think of how much we had going for us, American Pharoah and Bob Baffert, his Hall of Fame trainer.
Through the prep races, the hard-fought Kentucky Derby and a Preakness run in the slop, the horse had kept his condition extremely well. Bob, who pays attention to every detail, weighed him almost every day, so we knew the horse maintained his weight. Bob kept stressing how important that was.
I returned to the RV and our family began the countdown to the Belmont. I finally entered the paddock for the big race with my wife, Joanne; our daughter, Ashley, and her husband, Glenn; our other daughter, Emma; our son, Justin and his fiancée, Michelle; and our younger son, Benjamin.
The sight of American Pharoah marching into the paddock was reassuring. I could tell he was unbelievably focused. It was as if he was telling us, “It’s show time. I’m ready for you. I got this.”
His body language was so clear to me that I said to Bob, ‘He’s winning today. He’s winning.’
Bob is superstitious. He does not like such talk, worrying that it might jinx us. In this case, he broke into a big, knowing smile. I could tell he felt as sure about American Pharoah as I did.
Victor Espinoza is usually light-hearted before a race, smiling, waving to fans. This time, he was as focused and as serious as he could be. He always said he could tell a lot about American Pharoah and his condition as soon as he climbed aboard. He could feel the power right away. We anxiously waited to learn what he would feel this time.
We were elated. We all felt the magnitude of the event. In less than two-and-a-half minutes, we were either going to make history and our horse would be a legend or the dream turns into shattered hopes.
American Pharoah stepped onto the track to a huge ovation. He was as calm and as cool as could be. I was the one washed out. I was perspiring heavily as security escorted us to our seats and we slowly made our way through the big crowd. It was a weird feeling, knowing you can be so close to achieving something that could be taken away in an instant.
Bob had emphasized that the start would be key. American Pharoah started a bit slowly, but he quickly recovered and his smooth acceleration took him to the early lead. Victor was motionless as they showed the way. It was almost as if he had put the horse on autopilot.
American Pharoah’s sheer power was obvious. He was moving so comfortably as Materiality stalked him in second but never threatened to go by. While Frosted was making his move entering the final turn, Victor loosened his hold on American Pharoah.
Frosted could not keep up. Neither could Mubtaahij. Keen Ice was losing ground. Materiality was done. American Pharoah was really opening up now, leaving the field behind with every stride. There was no catching him.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I began to exclaim as he poured it on. My wife and children were screaming and crying. The crowd was going crazy.
We had won the Triple Crown!
As we made our way to the winner’s circle, I was elated but also humble and grateful. There were families that had been in the business for generations without accomplishing this or coming close. We had been in racing for 10 years and it happened to us. Why us?
I realized that this was bigger than our family and the 60 or so friends who came to Belmont Park to share our special day with us. That is why, in the post-race press conference, I said that American Pharoah was America’s horse. I vowed that, if he was sound, he would continue to race.
By the time we returned to the RV, we were all exhausted. I could barely speak. We celebrated by opening a bottle of champagne. And then we prayed together as a family, giving thanks for the gift of American Pharoah.
NYRA Press Office