More than a week removed from American Pharoah's triumph in the Belmont Stakes, completing his historic sweep of the most elusive prize in horse racing to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first in 37 years, the atmosphere at Belmont Park still lingers with the jubilation that reverberated through the racetrack and captured the national imagination last Saturday evening.
“Even people who don't know horse racing or anything, friends of mine and everybody around, that's all they've been talking about,” trainer John Terranova said earlier this week, on one of the quieter mornings at Barn 1 in recent memory, following last week's maelstrom that comes with stabling America's most famous horse. “I was just outside watching the replay on my phone again. I can't get enough of that. I get chills, even still.”
Terranova, along with his wife and assistant trainer Tonja, has played host to many of Bob Baffert's superstars who have journeyed through the New York Racing Association circuit over the years, including Eclipse Award honorees, eventual Hall of Famers and now a Triple Crown winner.
“Beginning with Cavonnier, who came for the Belmont [in 1996], we've had all the great ones: Point Given, Congaree, Silverbulletday, Silver Charm, Real Quiet. Small ones to the bigger names, we've had all of them,” he said, noting that the experience with their most recent visitor will be hard to match.
“It was a pleasure having [American Pharoah and his connections] here. Even with all the commotion and everything, it was no big deal for us. The horses were all good and we loved it. We'd do it over and over again, especially getting to see something like that.”
Like nearly everyone who has come in contact with the newly-minted champion, the longtime conditioner, who trains this year's Grade 3 Jerome and Gotham Stakes winner El Kabeir for Zayat Stables, the owners of American Pharoah, marvels at the horse's gentle disposition.
“You see that horse, he doesn't get bothered about anything,” Terranova said. “You could tie him up at the Wendy's across the street from the track and he wouldn't care. He's so cool! And thank goodness – man, in that winner's circle – that he's like that. Even a normal horse would've lashed out or panicked or something, but he's just something really unique. I've never seen that. He just knows. He just knows who he is and it's amazing.”
“We still haven't filled the stall,” he added, gesturing towards the now-empty Stall 30, where American Pharoah had taken up his temporary residence. “We have El Kabeir coming back in at the end of the month. [The Zayats] even said, ‘Why don't you put El Kabeir back in there?' and that's what I was already thinking. So we'll leave it until he gets here. Stall 30 seems to work out.”
For Carmen Barrera, NYRA's Director of Horsemen's Relations, American Pharoah's accomplishment fulfilled a more personal milestone. As a teenager, Barrera witnessed Secretariat end a 25-year Triple Crown drought in 1973 and was on hand again for Seattle Slew's claim to racing's most coveted prize four years later. Her experience the next year would prove to be unmatched, when her uncle, Laz Barrera, saddled Affirmed to victory over his archrival Alydar in the 1978 Belmont to become the third Triple Crown winner in five years.
“Nothing will ever beat Affirmed crossing that finish line for me, with the family connections and my uncle training the Triple Crown winner,” she said. “But this time around was really exciting. It's about time. It was a long time coming. Finally, finally after 37 years.”
This year was particularly special, Barrera said, because many of the connections of past winners were still able to enjoy the occasion firsthand, not to mention the thousands of racing fans who have shouldered the disappointments of the past waiting for another Triple Crown.
“I got a big kick out of that,” she said. “Mrs. [Patrice] Wolfson was here, the owner of Affirmed. Sally Hill was here, one of the co-owners of Seattle Slew. Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, too. So was [Jean] Cruguet and [Steve] Cauthen – actually they were right behind me [during the race].
“Plus, there are a lot of fans that are connected – they've been coming here for years and have been rooting for a Triple Crown, and the horse finally won. When it was supposed to happen, it happened. That's the way I feel: It wasn't going to until the right horse came along. In years past, it just wasn't meant to be. All the bad breaks, the stumbles, everything, was because it wasn't time yet. It's not supposed to be easy, so it was really nice to finally see.”
This year's Triple Crown was the first that Richard Migliore was able to experience as a participant in the sport as well as a fan, which, he said, made the day even more unforgettable.
“It was a different perspective this time around because last time I was on the other side of the fence watching,” said the retired jockey and current NYRA racing analyst. “This time, I was down on the track and I could look back at everything going on in the grandstand. Obviously, I'm a racing fan and an American Pharoah fan, but seeing how people reacted to it actually got me emotional. I couldn't believe the way people just didn't sit down for like half an hour. They just kept cheering. It was as good a feeling as I've ever had at any sporting event, let alone at the races.”
Migliore was with his father when he watched Seattle Slew and Affirmed nab back-to-back Triple Crowns in 1977 and 1978 and he is thankful that, nearly four decades later, he was able to share that same excitement with his own son as a part of the winner's circle celebration.
“Being here in 1977 with my father and then standing here with my son, Joe, watching it kind of brought back that flood of memories and that was really cool,” he said. “It seemed like everyone just had the same look on their face, that they were just really enjoying that moment. Here was something that was all positive, it was all good. All was right in the racing world at that moment. Even afterwards, I saw some handicappers and horseplayers that tend to be a little more jaded and they were even caught up in that moment. That, for me, told me it was as big of a moment as I thought it was, because these are not guys that wax poetically about this kind of stuff.
“I was struggling with my voice for a few days afterwards because, for that last eighth of a mile, I just couldn't help myself,” Migliore admitted. “I was 14-year-old me again with my legs dangling over the third-floor rail, screaming for Affirmed to beat Alydar, you know. It just shows that it takes a very, very unique and special kind of horse to do it and American Pharoah is a very special horse. He's not just physically gifted, but mentally, he handles things in a way that very few horses could. It was great.”
Nick Aquilino, Creative Services Supervisor in NYRA's Marketing Department and the son of the late Joe Aquilino, a longtime New York-based trainer, has had a lifetime of exposure to horse racing. But as part of a generation that had never seen a Triple Crown winner, he admits that he doubted whether the feat would be reached again.
“I grew up following my dad around the racetrack and I've been here to see many runnings of the Belmont Stakes and I wasn't sure if we'd ever have another Triple Crown winner,” he said. “Before last week, I thought Rachel Alexandra's Woodward win at Saratoga [in 2009] was the best race I've ever witnessed live, but Saturday took the crown. Watching American Pharoah storm down the stretch and feel the crowd erupt as he crossed the wire was an unbelievable experience. The fans were electric.”
Aquilino points out that the infectious spirit of American Pharoah's Triple Crown win coupled with the accessibility of social media has allowed racing fans to feel connected to the sport in a way that they may not have been in the past.
“He's been buzzing all over the internet and social media and that's something they didn't have back in the '70's,” he said. “I'm confident that this will provide a real spark to horse racing. You can tell by the way he glides over the track and how he carries himself around people that he's a special horse. He's just so cool and makes everything look so easy. Now I know why my dad introduced me to these beautiful animals.”
Even placing judge Sonny Taylor, who was the official clocker at Belmont during the reign of the three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, considers the recent victor a worthy addition to the annals of racing history.
“He deserved it,” he said. “They let him on the lead easy and that was the end of it. There was no chance of catching him when he went up the backside. He was going too easy for them. He's a good horse. I like the way he moves, he doesn't hit the ground hard. He's got a smooth stride. He moves like Dr. Fager, he has that kind of beautiful stride. That's a nice-moving horse.”
When asked how American Pharoah ranks among the other Triple Crown winners, the ever-cautious Taylor gives pause.
“I really want to see him run again,” he offered, no doubt echoing the sentiments of millions of racing fans around the world.
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