American Pharoah Joins 11 Triple Crown Winners

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Pam Linn

Wow! I tried not to get my hopes up as I did all the other times there was a chance for another Triple Crown winner. When California Chrome won the first two legs — the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — last year, only to have those hopes dashed in the Belmont Stakes, I almost gave up.

Thirty-seven years is a long time to wait and none of us are getting any younger. But it brings back memories just the same. I watched that last race when Affirmed clinched the title in 1978, just one year after Seattle Slew had won all three races within just five weeks. Those two were vying for Thoroughbred racing’s most coveted crown. With only two weeks to recover from the Kentucky Derby and three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont, it’s a real challenge.

It takes more than a fast horse to do that; it takes a sound horse to complete those crushing distances. And that horse has to be willing to slug it out with fresher horses, those who skipped the Preakness and came to the long, one-and-a-half-mile Belmont, rested: the spoilers.

Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza believed they had all that in American Pharoah, but both had been burned before. Baffert lost the third race in 1997, 1998 and 2002; Espinoza failed to win it in 2002 and last year on California Chrome.

The spoiler this time was believed by many to be Frosted, who finished a strong second, but American Pharoah had opened a five-and-a-half-length lead in the stretch and was in no danger of fading.

The beautiful bay colt got his name when the family hosted an online contest and a Missouri resident submitted the winning name. The misspelling of “pharaoh” wasn’t noticed until after it had been made official and couldn’t be changed. If all it takes to enter the history books is a misplaced “a,” then owner Ahmed Zayat will happily take it.

The exclusive club of Triple Crown winners began with Sir Barton in 1919, followed by Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935 and War Admiral in 1937. It’s strange that certain decades produced multiple winners, followed by prolonged dry spells. There were four winners in the 1940s: Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Citation in 1948. Then, for almost 30 years, there were no winners of all three races until Secretariat broke the apparent jinx in 1973.

In the 1970s, Seattle Slew and Affirmed also joined the select group of Triple Crown winners. 

By then, we had television and could watch the races, which we did with great interest.

Before that, we had to listen on radio and that certainly lacked something, although we didn’t realize it at the time.

Watching the races on television really increased public interest in horse racing and each winner had their own back-story to be told. Even without a real interest in racing, I always found the stories curious and responded emotionally to both wins and losses.

Although I trained horses for many years, I had little interest in racing until Kentucky Derby time each year. Then I would watch and hope for a winner that just might go on to take the Crown. 

Several of my best jumpers had unsuccessful flings at the track, whether it was a case of the “slows” or just not hooking up with the right trainer or jockey. It’s amazing how chronic losers blossom when they find something they’re good at and can forget the bad memories of failed racing.

In 1975, with the women’s lib movement in full swing, a match race was scheduled between Ruffian, undefeated in 10 starts, and Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. I watched as Ruffian pulled ahead and then knew something had gone terribly wrong. Having heard the crack of her ankle breaking, the jockey was unable to pull her up until it was too late. I wept as the trailer pulled onto the track to take her to surgery. She didn’t survive the after effects of anesthesia and was buried at Belmont Park.