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From sunrise to finish, day was all about American Pharoah

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Jockey Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah owner's son Justin Zayat raise the Triple Crown trophy.SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

Jockey Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah owner’s son Justin Zayat raise the Triple Crown trophy.

Shortly after 7 a.m. on Stakes Day, American Pharoah, the bay colt contending for a Triple Crown, walked the shed row inside Barn 1 at Belmont Park. He was hosed down and sponged by a stable hand afterward, then dressed in a maize-and-blue blanket. Twenty yards to his right, over a row of hedges and green wrought-iron fence, traffic on Hempstead Turnpike whirred past. Locals aware that the horse looking to storm the Big Sandy racetrack 12 hours later honked their car horns. Sparrows chirped. American Pharoah remained relaxed as he walked to his stall. J.C. Jaramillo, a Peace Officer standing guard, watched each step from behind a fence.

“Cool as can be,” he said.

Nothing fazed American Pharoah. His trainer, Bob Baffert, restricted access thereon, sheltering his horse from crowds that paraded past. He reasoned that he wanted American Pharoah to remain calm until called upon, and Jaramillo played gatekeeper, allowing members of the Equine Integrity Team inside, but few others. The exercise rider, George Alvarez, kept American Pharoah company, draining a Coors Light to ease his nerves. He told those curious that the horse he rode each day was ready. They all expressed confidence, and jockey Victor Espinoza, having failed to claim the Triple Crown twice before, cleared his mind. He focused on finishing.

“I was so concentrated on this horse,” he said. “It was not easy for me.”

A light rain fell early; clouds cleared in the afternoon. Conditions were perfect by the time Baffert marched down a tree-lined road in the backside to collect his horse. Barn 1 was the last one on the right, and his son, Bode, kept pace with his father. They both wore suits with pocket squares that matched their respective ties. They reached the stable at 5:36 p.m., and a small crowd gathered. Baffert watched American Pharoah get hosed down once again 10 minutes later, the groom stroking his black tail before wiping him down. Baffert called it the shortest tail on a horse he ever trained. He liked the horse’s body language, but knew to keep all distractions away until it was time to prepare him for the race. He learned from previous defeats.

“The key is to keep the human element away from him,” Baffert said. “When people come around him, he thinks maybe he’s gonna get ready to go out and do something.”

That time came minutes later. Plenty believed in the odds-on favorite. American Pharoah, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and they cheered as he walked down the path to a second barn that doubled as a staging area. Baffert and his family followed American Pharoah to the paddock, sidestepping manure left behind by other horses. Supporters lining the paddock shouted for Baffert, “Today’s the day, Bob!” A cameraman backpedaled as Baffert and Bode walked toward him. Before reaching the top of the incline, Baffert turned to his son.

“I’m starting to get nervous, Bode,” he said.

American Pharoah’s coat glistened. His veins bulged. His stride struck all who watched him. Amateurs and masters alike noted the effortless movements all week. Espinoza winked at his girlfriend before mounting American Pharoah in the paddock. Owner Ahmed Zayat relayed the instructions given from Baffert.

“You are sitting on a Ferrari,” the trainer told his jockey.

Tension built as American Pharoah was announced to the crowd of 90,000. There were eight horses in the field, but none kept pace. American Pharoah was up for his mile-and-a-half mettle test. Espinoza cruised him around Big Sandy. They collected the biggest racing win in 37 years. Onlookers clapped, clicked cameras.

“It wasn’t me,” Espinoza said. “It was the horse.”

Alvarez insisted that he knew they would win after the first quarter. He led wire-to-wire, winning by 5½ lengths, covering the distance in 2 minutes, 26.65 seconds. A fan held a sign in the lower stands where American Pharoah entered.

“Phinally,” it read.

Chaos followed. Espinoza expressed admiration for his horse. Security attempted to contain photographers, and American Pharoah circled around. Before posing for a family photograph, Baffert searched the crowd for his son once more.

“Bode!” he said. “Where’s Bode?”

The sun was setting as his son emerged. The crowd roared continuously. The father and son smiled and raised their arms together. American Pharoah exited stage left, led to Barn 11 for tests. He stayed inside a half hour. A law enforcement official lifted his iPhone to snap a selfie with the Triple Crown winner inside, and Peace Officers cleared the path for American Pharoah’s triumphant return to Barn 1. A Peace Officer requested assistance in containing the crowd over his radio.

“I need help on horse path 1,” he said. “It’s just me alone back here.”

The champion was brought to the barnyard once more, his connections feting his effort. A woman fed him carrots from a bag; Alvarez looked back with a smile. He called out to his horse: “Loco!” Alvarez played to the crowd, and kissed his horse on the nose. He patted him three times on the side. Night fell over Belmont Park.

ON MOBILE? WATCH ONE FAN’S REACTION TO AMERICAN PHAROAH WINNING TRIPLE CROWN

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