“I can’t explain, but I wanna try.”
In my memory, the 90,000 screaming fans at Belmont Park aren’t making a sound. It’s only that horse, making that move, at that moment.
every year since 1999. Most years, we saw horses struggling – extending themselves further than they ever had or ever will again. It was a battle merely to get to the finish line.
On June 6, 2015, it was different. American Pharoah didn’t run by us – he flew by us. That’s my memory. If you watch a replay of the race, the 1/8th pole is where Victor Espinoza finally urged American Pharoah to run and he took off like a 747. You can use any word you can find in the thesaurus. He exploded. He rocketed. He unleashed a super-charge burst that will ring through history.
There is no such thing as hyperbole when discussing American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. That, in short, is the beauty of it. His performance made all the wait worth it. His triumph proved the Triple Crown wasn’t broken. It was perfect.
The Belmont Stakes is my favorite day of the year, whether there’s a Triple Crown on the line or not. It is fitting that the Triple Crown came ten years after Afleet Alex, who himself ran all three legs, burst down the Belmont stretch with the most powerful, awe-inspiring move I had seen in my life. Like Pharoah, Alex coasted until Jeremy Rose said go and, as Tom Durkin famously said, he was “going, going, gone.”
In retrospect, the Triple Crown was won in a matter of seconds. As Gary Stevens astutely noted, the race was over after three strides. American Pharoah was so superior to his competition in every way that he simply toyed with them. A year after California Chrome couldn’t quite get the mile and a half; Espinoza rode an incredibly conservative race.
Why wouldn’t he? So many times, I arrived at Belmont Park believing this was the day. I knew for sure that Smarty Jones would not be denied. I knew that Big Brown’s inferior competition couldn’t beat him. I knew California Chrome’s acceleration would send him into history.
The failures added up year after year but the belief never wavered. That was never truer than this year.
Only Smarty Jones had instilled a confidence in the crowd at Belmont during a Triple Crown. On that day in 2004, the crowd truly believed they attending a coronation. I wrote about the “wall of sound” that engulfed Belmont that day, when Smarty opened up at the top of the stretch. When he lost, that wall turned into disgusting silence. It was the most gloriously painful sporting event I will ever attend.
When American Pharoah opened up around the far turn at Belmont this year, the crowd was excited but not ready to explode. My Dad yelled, “They’re not catching him!” and I told him to shut up.
But the most amazing thing happened – as Pharoah ran by you, you knew. The thought gives me goosebumps 17 days later, and will for the next 17 years.
The sound cascaded down the Belmont grandstands with the horse. When he ran by, looking the way he did, you knew you had just witnessed history. When he flew by the 1/8th pole, everyone in my section started high-fiving and hugging because it was all over by the shouting. When he crossed the finish line, the sound was so loud I didn’t hear a word of Larry Collmus’ now-famous call.
Many people have said that they cried when Pharoah crossed the finish line. I can’t say that happened to me but something else just as strange did – my Dad started hugging strangers. So I started hugging strangers. So did my 21 year-old cousin, who chose the most excellent Belmont Stakes to make his first. I hugged the guys in front of me. I hugged the guy across from me I hadn’t talked to. Hell, I even hugged the beer vendor!
The noise was indescribable. I’ve been thinking for weeks how to explain it and I can’t. When Smarty Jones hit the lead, I explained it as a “747 taking off from inside your stomach.” But this was more. It was a roar mixed with joy mixed with screaming with a dash of the unthinkable. No one could really understand what they were feeling because we didn’t really know how to react. The vast majority of the crowd wasn’t even alive for the last Triple Crown.
The night before, I told a friend I thought this was the year. He then asked me what I would do if it happened. I said, “I don’t know.” I didn’t. I had always thought about a horse winning the Triple Crown but never let myself imagine the reaction.
It didn’t matter. I could never have imagined that reaction. My Dad sat down during the celebration, shook his head and said, “I almost passed out.” That’s how intense it was. You saw people randomly sit down for a second and do the same thing. It was too much. It was overwhelming.
The buzz never subsided. For the weeks leading up to the race, the New York Racing Association had begged fans to not leave right after the race to allow crowds to leave in waves. They had no such problem this year. No one wanted to leave.
There are always two races after the Belmont Stakes, in part to keep the crowd from not leaving at once. Following Chrome’s failure in 2014, the place was completely vacated by the last race. This year, it felt like 75 percent stayed. How do you walk away from history?
I walked around the paddock area after the Belmont, striking conversations with random strangers about their experience. “I’ve been going since Charismatic,” I would say. “My first was Point Given,” said one man. “Been here since Funny Cide,” told me another. A woman said she had been every year since 1997 and brought her 16-year old niece for her first to see Pharoah. There were tears in her eyes.
Some two hours after the race, the Goo Goo Dolls began their post-race concert and the party kept going. Since we had a 2+ hour drive back to Connecticut, we couldn’t stay until Iris. We rode in silence, all three of us clearly playing the event over and over in our head. I couldn’t wait to go home and watch the replay to get a sense of how it played on TV.
Upon arriving back home, my Mom said it looked “incredible.” My phone, dead at the track, lit up with a string of texts from everyone I knew. I laid in bed for hours, checking Twitter, reading articles and never wanting the moment to fade.
When I went to work the following Monday, I was asked about the event. It was impossible to describe. The following Tuesday, my Dad emailed me: “I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t explain it.”
That’s why American Pharoah’s victory will echo forever. The unexplainable always does.
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