Naturally, as an artist as well as a racing fan, Thoroughbreds have been a popular subject for me. I have painted more than 60 racehorses over the years, some of them Triple Crown winners, some of them near misses.
American Pharoah had turned in quick times in his two wins as a two year-old, but his three year-old debut over a sloppy track at Oaklawn was slow but dominant. Dortmund meanwhile fired off quick victories in the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, remaining undefeated as he headed into the Derby. A week after Dortmund's impressive Santa Anita Derby win, Pharoah skipped away from the field of the Arkansas Derby at the top of the stretch to win geared down in a hand ride by 8 lengths. Jockey Victor Espinoza never so much as waved his whip at Pharoah, and the colt floated down the stretch with his ears pricked. I was very impressed, but cautiously so. Plenty of horses have won their last Derby prep in an exciting fashion only to fizzle at Churchill.
|Arkansas Derby win (DRF.com photo)
|Kentucky Derby victory (Concord Monitor photo)
|Ears pricked for a very muddy Preakness win (Patrick Smith/Getty images/NPR.org)
Saturday morning at Belmont dawned with pouring rain. An omen? By the late afternoon though, the track was fast and dry. As the horses were loaded into the starting gate, I thought my heart would pound right out of my chest. Espinoza sent the colt to the lead immediately, and he quickly settled into an easy rhythm, ears pricked and loping along with that smooth, far-reaching stride. When the first quarter flashed up in :24, a tiny corner of my brain began screaming, "Oh my god, he's going to do it!" but I couldn't say it aloud for fear of jinxing him. The half came in a perfect :48 and then three-quarters went in a reasonable 1:13. Victor and Pharoah were setting the perfect, sane pace for a mile and a half race. That excitable, uninhibited part of my brain was jumping up and down and yelling that as long as the colt could stay the distance, the chance of a Triple Crown was very, very real. But the quarter pole is where the real action usually begins, and I thought I might expire from nerves while the horses swept around the long far turn toward the pole at the top of the stretch.
The other jockeys began to ask their mounts for more as they wheeled out of the turn, and for a moment, it looked like Frosted was going to make a serious challenge. But Victor let his colt out another notch, and Pharoah's lead opened up to three lengths and then four. By that time, I was screaming incoherently. As American Pharoah flashed under the wire five and a half lengths clear of the field as America's long-awaited twelfth Triple Crown winner, I whooped and cried happy tears. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more---euphoria, elation, absolute wonder.
|Belmont bliss (si.com photo)
After the race, I had to watch the replay again (and again and again) as I had shrieked all through the stretch call and had no idea what Larry Collmus said. In the hours after the race, it seemed surreal that at last a twelfth Triple Crown winner had been crowned, but now that a few days have passed, it has slowly sunk in. It's a fantastic feeling. I keep surfing over to Youtube and rewatching the race, and I get choked up hearing, "And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” I suspect I always will.