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American Pharoah joins the exclusive club of Triple Crown winners

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Photo Courtesy: MGN Online

NEW YORK – American Pharoah proved it’s not impossible to win the Triple Crown.

Sure, 37 years had passed since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. And lots of people didn’t dare get their hopes up for another Triple Crown winner after 13 other horses since then had their tries go awry at Belmont Park.

Some observers even suggested the Triple Crown was too tough and changes were needed to make the series easier.

American Pharoah proved everyone wrong.

He cruised to a 5.5-length victory Saturday, leading all the way in a grueling race in which his rivals never threatened. The bay colt with the unusually short tail and misspelled name – it should be pharaoh – made one of sports’ rarest feats look easy in front of a delirious sellout crowd of 90,000.

American Pharoah kicked away at the top of the stretch, triggering a raucous celebration that began before the finish line and lasted long after the race ended. The party continues Sunday in Louisville, Kentucky, where the California-based colt will be feted at Churchill Downs, where he stayed in between Triple Crown races.

Earlier last week, owner Ahmed Zayat told CBS News’ Michelle Miller that American Pharoah was a champion without all the bluster.

“He’s as sweet as a horse you’ll ever come by,” Zayat said. “You could bring kids up to him, and he’ll just put his head on them. He knows who he is. I call him a humble champion.”

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.

Here’s what to know about how he became a champion, and what’s ahead for him:

A GREAT HORSE

It takes a great horse to win the Triple Crown, one that can endure the compressed schedule of three races at various distances on different tracks in five weeks. Not to mention the prep races needed to accumulate enough points to run in the Derby. After losing his first career race, American Pharoah went on to win an Eclipse Award as last year’s 2-year-old champion. Now, he’s won seven in a row and the only close one was the Derby, which he won by a length. That was the stiff test he needed to toughen up for the rest of the Triple Crown. He later won the Preakness by seven lengths in a driving rainstorm.

OVERCAME INJURY

American Pharoah, the early favorite, couldn’t run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last October because of a bruised left front foot. He was off for 6.5 months and didn’t return to the races until March 14. That’s somewhat late in the Derby prep season, but trainer Bob Baffert showed patience in resting his star horse until he was fully recovered. American Pharoah didn’t lose any of his conditioning despite his extended vacation. “Nobody can make a slow horse a fast horse,” owner Ahmed Zayat said, “but it’s a trainer who cares who can develop a horse. A trainer who cares knows when to stop a horse when we’re all tempted to run him.”

FAILURE AND EXPERIENCE

Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza can breathe sighs of relief after ditching their personal Triple Crown curses. Baffert had lost his three previous Triple tries, including by a nose in 1998. He finally got his hands on the sterling silver Triple Crown trophy that had been waiting 37 years at the Kentucky Derby museum for someone to claim it. “I was really getting to dislike this trophy – it’s come with a lot of misery,” Baffert said. Espinoza missed Triple Crown sweeps in 2002 – riding War Emblem who was trained by Baffert – and last year aboard California Chrome. “I feel like a loser the last two times,” he said. “I looked at that trophy, I was excited and kind of angry because two times I can’t get it until now.”

NEXT UP

The breeding rights to American Pharoah were sold before the Belmont to Coolmore Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky. Zayat will continue to own the colt until he retires, which isn’t expected to be until sometime next year. “Can this change? Possibly, I can’t promise,” Zayat said. “We need to enjoy our stars and race them as long as we possibly can.” Stud fees won’t be determined until American Pharoah retires, but winning the Triple Crown should send them into orbit. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, stands at $60,000 per live foal.

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