NEW YORK (AP) — Finally, a Triple Crown winner, and after 37 years of waiting, this one was never in doubt.
American Pharoah led all the way to win the Belmont Stakes by 5 ½ lengths on Saturday, becoming the first horse since 1978 to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes — one of the sporting world's rarest feats.
"Wow! Wow!" jockey Victor Espinoza said moments after crossing the finish line. "I can only tell you it just an amazing thing."
The bay colt with the unusually short tail easily defeated seven rivals in the grueling 1 1/2-mile race, covering the distance in 2:26.65 — sixth-fastest in Belmont history — to end the longest stretch without a Triple Crown champion in history.
"That little horse, he deserved it," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's the one that did it. We were basically just passengers."
American Pharoah is the 12th horse and first since Affirmed in 1978 to win three races on different tracks at varying distances over a five-week span. He won the Derby by one length on May 2 and then romped to a seven-length victory in the rainy Preakness two weeks later before demolishing his rivals Saturday.
"I still can't believe it happened," said Baffert, at 62 the second-oldest trainer of a Triple Crown winner.
Baffert and Espinoza ended their own frustrating histories in the Triple Crown. Baffert finally won on his record fourth Triple try, having lost in 1997, 1998 (by a nose) and in 2002. Espinoza got it done with his record third shot after failing to win in 2002 and last year on California Chrome.
"I was prepared for somebody coming because I've been through this so many times," Baffert said.
Espinoza hustled American Pharoah to the lead leaving the No. 5 post and quickly got him over to the rail. Materiality was on his outside in second, but never applied any serious pressure traveling on the backstretch before falling away on the second turn.
American Pharoah started kicking away heading into the stretch turn. He opened up on the field as he powered down the stretch, displaying his fluid, springloaded stride in which he appears to float over the ground.
"It's just an amazing feeling that you have when you're 20 yards from the wire," Espinoza said. "And then at the wire I was like, 'I cannot believe I did it.'"
American Pharoah ran the final quarter-mile — a stretch that has dashed numerous Triple Crown dreams — in 24.32 seconds, faster than Secretariat's time of 25 seconds in winning the 1973 Belmont.
After making his way back, Espinoza took American Pharoah nearly the length of the sprawling grandstand so the fans could pay their respects to the champion.
As the horses were heading to the starting gate, owner Ahmed Zayat was overflowing with confidence and turned to his wife.
"I told her, 'Get ready to be the owner of the 12th Triple Crown winner," he said.
Sent off as the overwhelming 3-5 favorite, American Pharoah paid $3.50, $2.80 and $2.50.
Frosted returned $3.50 and $2.90, while Keen Ice was another two lengths back in third and paid $4.60 to show.
Mubtaahij was fourth, followed by Frammento, Madefromlucky, Tale of Verve and Materiality.
American Pharoah delivered a victory for the Egyptian-born Zayat, who bred the colt and put him up for sale before buying him back for $300,000. His name came courtesy of the family's online contest, in which a woman from Missouri submitted the winning moniker, but the misspelling — it should be pharaoh — wasn't noticed until the name was already official.
"I can't believe it happened," said Justin Zayat, racing manager for his father's stable. "It's amazing. Oh my God."
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.
A sign with American Pharoah's name and silks was quickly put up in the infield next to the 11 other Triple Crown winners.
The crowd of 90,000 — capped to avoid overcrowding and long lines from last year's total of 102,199 — roared as American Pharoah turned for home.
As he neared the finish line, drinks were tossed in the air and fans jumped up and down in celebration, many holding their camera phones aloft to capture history on a sunny, 75-degree day at Belmont Park. It's unlikely the champion heard them since American Pharoah wears ear plugs to block noise that might get him worked up.
American Pharoah extended his winning streak to seven races. He matched the accomplishment of his grand-sire, Empire Maker, who won the 2003 Belmont, spoiling Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid.
Since 1978, the rigors of the Triple Crown had done in 13 other horses who won the Derby and the Preakness — with 12 losing the third leg and I'll Have Another scratched with a leg injury in 2012. Their failures left the sport and its fans craving a worthy successor to the 11 previous champions.
American Pharoah — his tail shortened after being bitten off on a farm when he was a youngster — turned out to be that horse.
He was 2-year-old champion last year, and virtually cinched similar honors for his achievements as a 3-year-old this year.
Unlike Affirmed, who dueled Alydar in all three races, American Pharoah didn't have a specific rival since he was only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races. Going into the Belmont, American Pharoah had beaten all of his seven challengers before.
Five of his rivals lost to him in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness to await the Belmont, a competitive advantage to horses that didn't endure the three-race grind. Tale of Verve finished second in the Preakness to American Pharoah, who had beaten Madefromlucky in the Rebel Stakes in March.
American Pharoah became the first horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 to run in all three races and win the Belmont, known as "The Test of the Champion."
He passed, with flying colors.
Photos: Seth Wenig/AP