BY BETH HARRIS
NEW YORK — At long last, the Triple Crown drought is over.
American Pharoah led all the way to win the Belmont Stakes by 5 ½ lengths on Saturday, becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — one of the sporting world’s rarest feats.
“Wow! Wow!” jockey Victor Espinoza said moments after crossing the finish line. “I can only tell you it just an amazing thing.”
The bay colt with the unusually short tail defeated seven rivals in the grueling 1 1/2-mile race, covering the distance in 2:26.65 to end the longest stretch without a Triple Crown champion in history.
American Pharoah is the 12th horse and first since Affirmed in 1978 to win three races on different tracks at varying distances over a five-week span. He won the Derby by one length on May 2 and then romped to a seven-length victory in the rainy Preakness two weeks later before demolishing his rivals Saturday.
“I still can’t believe it happened,” said Bob Baffert, at 62 the second-oldest trainer of a Triple Crown winner.
Baffert and Espinoza ended their own frustrating histories in the Triple Crown. Baffert finally won on his record fourth Triple try, having lost in 1997, 1998 (by a nose) and in 2002. Espinoza got it done with his record third shot after failing to win in 2002 and last year on California Chrome.
Sent off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite, American Pharoah paid $3.50, $2.80 and $2.50.
“I feel so good,” Espinoza said, “I say, ‘I hope American Pharoah feels like me.”
Frosted returned $3.50 and $2.90, while Keen Ice was another two lengths back in third and paid $4.60 to show.
Mubtaahij was fourth, followed by Frammento, Madefromlucky, Tale of Verve and Materiality.
American Pharoah delivered a victory for Egyptian-born owner Ahmed Zayat, who bred the colt and put him up for sale before buying him back for $300,000. His name came courtesy of the family’s online contest, in which a woman from Missouri submitted the winning moniker, but the misspelling wasn’t noticed until the name was already official
“I can’t believe it happened,” said Justin Zayat, racing manager for his father’s stable. “It’s amazing. Oh my God.”
American Pharoah joined the exclusive club of Triple Crown winners Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed.
“I’m thrilled,” said 93-year-old Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat and watched from the stands.
A sign with American Pharoah’s name and silks was quickly put up in the infield next to the 11 other Triple Crown winners.
The crowd of 90,000 — capped to avoid overcrowding and long lines from last year’s total of 102,199 — roared as American Pharoah turned for home still in front.
As he neared the finish line, drinks were tossed in the air and fans jumped up and down in celebration, many holding their camera phones aloft to capture history on a sunny, 75-degree day at Belmont Park. It’s unlikely the champion heard them since American Pharoah wears ear plugs to block noise that might get him worked up.
American Pharoah extended his winning streak to seven races. He matched the accomplishment of his grand-sire, Empire Maker, who won the 2003 Belmont, spoiling Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid.
Since 1978, the rigors of the Triple Crown had done in 13 other horses who won the Derby and the Preakness — with 12 losing the third leg and I’ll Have Another scratched with a leg injury in 2012. Their failures left the sport and its fans craving a worthy successor to the 11 previous champions.
American Pharoah — his tail shortened after being bitten off on a farm when he was a youngster — turned out to be that horse. He awed observers with his speed and a fluid, springloaded stride in which he appeared to float over the ground.
He was 2-year-old champion last year, and virtually cinched similar honors for his achievements as a 3-year-old this year.
Unlike Affirmed, who dueled Alydar in all three races, American Pharoah didn’t have a specific rival since he was only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races. Going into the Belmont, American Pharoah had beaten all of his seven challengers before.
Five of his rivals lost to him in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness to await the Belmont, a competitive advantage to horses that didn’t endure the three-race grind. Tale of Verve finished second in the Preakness to American Pharoah, who had beaten Madefromlucky in the Rebel Stakes in March.
American Pharoah became the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to run in all three races and win the Belmont, known as “The Test of the Champion.”
He passed, with flying colors.