After the first turn on Saturday, jockey Victor Espinoza knew that American Pharoah was going to win the Belmont Stakes.
But why? What was different? What was different from War Emblem and California Chrome? Why was American Pharoah going to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978?
“Well, the difference is, American Pharoah, he was amazing,” Espinoza said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “He was ready to go this time and he looked outstanding. He was just the happiest horse ever. He’s not really quick out of the gate, but (then) he accelerates and in no time I was just right in front. That’s exactly what I want. I want to take control of the race out of the gate. That is the difference.”
War Emblem and California Chrome had chances to win the Triple Crown in 2002 and 2014, respectively, but both came up short in the Belmont.
“War Emblem, he was a little bit tired after the Preakness,” Espinoza recalled. “He lost weight and his energy level was not really like before. That’s probably what caused him to stumble out of the gate – because horses are like humans. When we’re tired, we do things in slow motion. Horses, too. They don’t really react quick.”
California Chrome, meanwhile, was stepped on by the horse to his right, Matterhorn, when both horses broke from the gate at the Belmont last year. California Chrome came on strong toward the end of the race but finished fourth behind Medal Count, Commissioner and the eventual winner, Tonalist.
Espinoza didn’t have a good feeling that day even in warmups.
“He was very tried, and I noticed in the warmup with California Chrome (that) he was not like he used to (be),” Espinoza said. “He looked a little bit narrow and kind of down a little bit. That caused him to come out of the gate in slow motion and (Matterhorn) stepped on his foot and that was the race. It was pretty much over. Normally when the hoses are tired, they don’t move that quick. So that’s the difference.”
American Pharoah had no issues with quickness. He led the Belmont from start to finish, won the race by five-and-a-half lengths and posted a time of 2:26.65 – the sixth-fastest mark in race history.
Doug Gottlieb wondered how American Pharoah would compare to great horses from the past, such as Secretariat, who won the Triple Crown in 1973 and set records in all three races. Espinoza wasn’t sure – “I was probably not even one year old when Secretariat ran,” he said – but he does know that American Pharoah is the best horse he’s ever ridden.
“I rode a lot of amazing horses and a lot of good horses in my career,” he said, “but American Pharoah is right on top, no. 1.”
Espinoza, it is worth noting, graciously donated his Belmont winnings to City of Hope, a California-based cancer research and treatment center.
“I look at it this way: It’s not going to affect my life much, but it can help them,” Espinoza said. “If there’s somebody I can help, (I want to do it).”