American Pharoah showed the world all of his skills on Saturday.
He is horseracing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, yes, but it’s the way he did it that sticks in my mind.
First, it was that pure sprinter speed. He stormed to the lead as soon as the gates opened for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes and eliminated any chance of getting stuck in traffic.
Next, he flashed that majestic picture-perfect stride -- it’s like watching Ken Griffey Jr. swing a baseball bat or Ray Allen shoot a jumpshot -- as he galloped rhythmically along ahead of the pack. In setting a controlled, easy pace, he also displayed his intelligence and kindness, listening intently to his jockey’s commands, rather than stubbornly demanding to go quicker, like so many brilliantly fast racehorses do.
Lastly, Pharoah showed you his acceleration, pulling away from runner-up Frosted in the stretch at Belmont Park with such a devastating turn of foot that he forced that horse into an awkward misstep in the race’s final seconds.
Just moments earlier, Frosted, a talented, royally-bred colt, seemed poised to make a big run at Pharoah, lurking a couple lengths behind, his jockey sitting chilly, waiting to pull the trigger. He had no chance, though. By the time they hit the finish, Pharoah’s edge had swelled to 5 1/2 lengths.
The big horse stopped the clock in 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds, the sixth-fastest Belmont Stakes in history.
The quarter-mile splits he ran tell a story themselves: 24.06 seconds; 24.77 seconds; 24.58 seconds; 24.58 seconds; 24.34 seconds and 24.32 seconds. In horseracing on the dirt in America, those kind of steady splits are almost unheard of, and to do them progressively faster late in the race is even rarer. (Consider that the 2013 Belmont winner did the opening quarter-mile in under 24 seconds and the last quarter in almost 28 seconds).
It was the second-fastest time for the final-quarter mile in the Belmont over the past four decades. And it was almost a full second faster than Secretariat’s last quarter-mile in his record-breaking 1973 race.
Now American Pharoah may not quite be Secretariat, but he has put himself in that company by becoming just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. Where exactly he will end up ranked in history -- Top 50, Top 25, Top 10, Top 5 -- will depend on what he can pull off in the remainder of the year.
With his stallion rights having already been sold off to Ireland’s Coolmore Stud, he is most likely heading to the breeding shed at the end of his three-year-old season. So after some much-deserved, post-Triple Crown rest, Pharoah will have maybe a few months of racing left, starting in August.
Judging from previous campaigns chosen by his trainer Bob Baffert, that could be four races, perhaps starting with the Haskell Invitational on the New Jersey shore (a race Baffert has won seven times) and ending with the Breeders Cup Classic, America’s richest horse race.
Pharoah was good in the Kentucky Derby, great in the Preakness Stakes and just awesome in the Belmont. His record only contains one blemish in eight starts: a defeat in his debut a year ago that can be chalked up to inexperience. His average margin of victory since has been 4 1/2 lengths. If he runs the table the rest of the way and finishes his career with 11 wins in 12 starts, including a Triple Crown title, that’ll put him awfully high on that list of all-time greats.
I hope he does.
As racing touts like me have been saying since the run-up to the Derby, this horse is a freak. A pure running machine. The kind that comes around only every so often. On Saturday, in the biggest moment of his career, in the biggest moment in horseracing in decades, in front of 90,000 delirious fans in New York, he proved it.
(David Papadopoulos, managing editor for the Americas editing hub at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)