American Pharoah headed for home, headed for Triple Crown history, and a roar they might have heard as far away as Mexico City, where it all began for Victor Espinoza, rose in a deafening crescendo from all around Belmont Park.
It was a roar 37 years in the making, and a New York, New York crowd was partying like it was 1994 in the Garden when Messier hoisted the Cup. Like 1996 at the old Yankee Stadium when Charlie Hayes caught a foul pop-up.
Joyous, euphoric scenes erupted everywhere, from the back of American Pharoah, where Espinoza jabbed the air triumphantly with his right hand, to the box where trainer Bob Baffert talked about his late parents watching with him from above, to the countless eyewitnesses to history who would rather keep their $2 win ticket as a forever memento than cash it.
On a fast track to history, Espinoza rode American Pharoah to a wire-to-wire victory that made him the 11th jockey to win the Triple Crown and first since Steve Cauthen and made American Pharoah the 12th horse to win it, and first since Affirmed.
Espinoza had failed in his first Triple Crown bid in 2002 with War Emblem, failed a year ago with California Chrome.
To the Victor go the spoils, finally.
“The third time’s the charm,” Espinoza said.
Espinoza had awakened on the biggest day of his racing life to the front page of The Post headlining a Page Six item in which the mother of his alleged fiancée basically called him Sleazy Rider for two-timing her daughter.
A horse that had captured imaginations needed him at his best. So did a trainer who had tried and failed three times to win a Triple Crown. So did an ailing sport desperate for a hero. The Belmont is a mile-and-a-half race that only the strong survive, and the split-second decisions a jockey must make can be critical.
He knew, Baffert knew, all of New York, New York and all of America knew American Pharoah was the best horse in the race. But there have been other best horses who spit the bit at the Belmont.
Spectacular Bid, for example. Smarty Jones, for example. Would American Pharoah be able to endure this The Test of the Champion?
And what if his jockey did not show up with blinders on for his moment of truth, or might he show up distracted in some way by these untimely hot-to-trot, Blazing Saddles accusations?
“It probably wouldn’t be a help,” said Cauthen, a celebrity all day Saturday at Belmont. “Basically, you just have to push that out of your mind for the time being, and focus on the challenge at hand.”
The challenge at hand arrived at 6:52 p.m. for Espinoza.
“You’re a gladiator, basically,” Cauthen said. “You know your time is coming.”
This time, with this horse, there would be no excuses for Espinoza.
“Riders Up,” came the command from Joe Torre.
American Pharoah took the lead out of the gate and wouldn’t let anyone take it from him.
Baffert had told Espinoza in the paddock to go for it. So Espinoza went for it.
“Dude,” Baffert said to the jockey, “he is ready. Go ahead, ride him with confidence.”
Espinoza was about to have the time of his life on a ride of his life on a once-in-a-lifetime horse.
“Two jumps, I was right in the lead,” Espinoza said.
“I tell you, the first turn, I had the best feeling I ever have. … I didn’t even know what pole it is, half a mile, 5/8ths, I was just having fun.”
There weren’t only eight horses racing. Ninety-thousand hearts raced with them.
As he headed for home, for history, American Pharoah looked faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. Look, down on the backstretch. He was 5 ¹/₂ lengths ahead at the wire and would have doubled the margin of victory soon after.
“He’s just an amazing horse,” Espinoza said.
A raucous Macanudo-puffing, beer-swilling New York event crowd of 90,000, all dressed up and nowhere to go, pleaded under what was left of a warm sun for history, for the end to this Triple Crown drought, screamed themselves hoarse for a horse of a different color.
For Espinoza, this was a long way from work on the goat farm as a child, from riding cows, from driving a bus as a 14-year-old with a fake ID, from the beginnings of this career at Hipodromo de las Americas in Mexico City. In a classy gesture, Espinoza announced he would donate his winnings to the charity City of Hope.
“And then at the wire I was like, ‘I cannot believe I did it,’” Espinoza said.