As the sun set on Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, the numinous twilight revealed the god kings of ancient Egypt basking in their glory. Again, a divine deity was crowned with carnations, a silver bowl and the Triple Crown. It took 2045 years for a Pharaoh to rise up and conquer a new land half a world way. Only this time, instead of Crook and Flail, this “Pharoah” reigned with thundering hoofs and a misspelled name.
American Pharoah, the thoroughbred three year old son of Pioneerofthe Nile from Zayat Stables, became only the 12th horse in history to win the ever-difficult Triple Crown of horse racing. The last winner was Affirmed in 1978. During that 37-year stretch, 13 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winners have tried to win the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes and failed. Not every horse is meant to be divine.
The 147th running of the Belmont Stakes was redemptive in nature for both horse and man. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and veteran jockey Victor Espinoza have tried and failed five times between them to win the elusive Triple Crown title and trophy. Belmont’s 1.5-mile track, which is approximately the average width of the great Nile River, usually separates both man and equine from immortality, but not this day — not this day 37 years in the making.
Espinoza and Baffert looked to the last three Triple Crown winners in their plan to run this race from wire to wire. At the gate, American Pharoah started out slow but quickly found his stride charging ahead of the field and led from start to finish, pulling away from Frosted in the stretch by 5 1/2 lengths. He completed the daunting track in two minutes, 26.65 seconds, the second-fastest Belmont time of all Triple Crown winners with Secretariat being the track record holder at 2:24. Nevertheless, American Pharoah’s last quarter mile (24.32 seconds) was better than Secretariat’s last quarter-mile by 68 hundredths of a second. Frosted, which finished second to American Pharoah, ran faster than the Belmont Stakes’ last six winners! It was a day of destiny.
The Triple Crown represents the smallest sports fraternity and is the toughest championship to win. To be triumphant, the horse has to win the Kentucky Derby (1.25 miles), the Preakness Stakes (1.1875 miles) and the Belmont Stakes (1.5 miles) all within a five-week period. The first Triple Crown winner was Sir Barton in 1919. The 12th winner was American Pharoah in 2015. We are all a part of that history now. I have watched one-third of the winners in my lifetime: Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978 and now American Pharoah. My son Landon has seen only one. We watched the race together last Saturday. Twelve horses in 96 years — one in the last 37 years. No sport has fewer champions.
As we watched the race, Landon spotted Ms. Penny Chenery in the grandstand. Secretariat is his favorite horse and one of his favorite movies. Ms. Chenery, 93 years young, has seen 11 of the 12 Triple Crown horses in her lifetime, owning the best of the bunch. What were her thoughts and feelings last Saturday? How I would love to talk with her.
Yet, the story is today and the horse is American Pharoah, the Triple Crown Champion with the misspelled name. While the great Pharaohs of Egypt are spelled “aoh,” the American Pharoah is spelled “oah.” If you can figure out who to blame for the gaffe let me know as the story goes like this. American Pharoah’s name was inspired by his sire, Pioneerofthe Nile, and his dam’s sire, Yankee Gentleman. The horse’s name obviously acknowledges owner Ahmed Zayat’s own Egyptian-American heritage. Zayat claimed the misspelling was the error of the Jockey Club. However, the Jockey Club produced the electronic digital name application from its interactive registration site, and that ended Zayat’s accusation.
Zayat’s wife, Joanne, offered another explanation for the name’s origin before the Preakness Stakes. It appears Zayat’s son, Justin, ran a contest on social media for fans to name the horse. The winning entry had “Pharoah” misspelled. Apparently, Justin simply cut and pasted the name from the winner’s email and sent it to the Jockey Club.
Enter Marsha Baumgartner of Barnett, Missouri, the “lucky” winner of the contest. She told The New York Times, “I don’t want to assign blame, but I looked up the spelling before I entered.” Her “Show Me State” ingenuity shined through when Baumgartner minimized the entire affair by simply stating, “Horses can’t spell, anyway!” You’re right there, but they sure can run — into immortality!
I’ll see you from the sidelines.