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After 37 Years, A Triple Crown Winner At Last: American Pharoah Sweeps The Races

It took nearly four decades, but a horse has once again attained the honor that some call the most difficult achievement in sports: American Pharoah, after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, ran to victory in the Belmont Stakes as well.

He's the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. With his win, a total of 12 horses have now achieved the feat.

American Pharoah took the lead early in the race, with Materiality close on his tail: at the halfway point, they were separated by three-quarters of a length.

But then the favorite kicked away, opening up a two-length lead at the top of the final stretch, as Frosted moved into second. American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza opened up even more distance as they made their way to triumph across the finish line.

In that emphatic win, American Pharoah overcame a marked disadvantage: he was the only horse running in the Belmont Stakes who also ran in both the Derby and the Preakness. That means he was racing against better-rested horses.

Over the years, as NPR's Joel Rose reports, that disparity has led to grumbling from horse-racing fans and professionals — and some skepticism that any horse, under those rules, could again win the Triple Crown:

"I'm 61 years old, and I'll never see, in my lifetime, I will never see another Triple Crown winner, because [of] the way they do this," said California Chrome's owner, Steve Coburn, after the race. The winner at last year's Belmont was Tonalist. He didn't run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, so he had plenty of time to rest before the Belmont. Coburn said that should not be allowed. "It's all or nothing," Coburn said last year. "Because this is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people, and for the people who believe in them. This is a coward's way out in my opinion. This is a coward's way out." Coburn later apologized. But he put his finger on something real. Of the seven horses challenging American Pharoah in this year's Belmont, only one raced in the Preakness three weeks ago, meaning the other horses have had at least two extra weeks to rest.

But calls for a rule change might die down for a while, now that American Pharoah beat his well-rested opponents.

The resounding win is a triumph not only for the horse, but for owner Ahmed Zayat and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

And it may feel particularly sweet to Espinoza, who has fallen just short of the Triple Crown twice before: In 2002, he rode War Emblem as the Triple Crown contender came in 8th in the Belmont; last year, he rode California Chrome to 4th.

On Saturday, before a roaring crowd, he rode American Pharoah into the history books.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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