WASHINGTON — In winning the Belmont Stakes Saturday, American Pharoah became the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win horse racing’s holy grail, the Triple Crown.
Rather than focusing on this historic accomplishment, the first of its kind in 37 years, American Pharoah’s victory has sparked a Jordan vs. LeBron-esque debate about how the recent winner would have fared against Secretariat, believed to be the fastest horse to ever race.
Spurred on by a viral side-by-side video — put together by The Wall Street Journal — this who did it better debate hinges on American Pharoah’s 5 1/2-length Belmont Stakes margin of victory, versus Secretariat’s 31-length victory 42 years earlier on the same track.
Here’s a sampling of headlines from around the web over the past four days:
Their official times — American Pharoah (2:26.65), Secretariat (2:24) — it must be said, dictate that Secretariat would have won a head-to-head race by 2.65 seconds. The latter time is the track record.
Accomplished jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Tale of Verve and finished seventh at this year’s Belmont Stakes, knows the bitter pill of having won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to come up short in Elmont. He rode Silver Charm to Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories in 1997, then was denied the Triple Crown by Touch Gold by half a length. The next year, he reversed roles in denying Real Quiet the Triple Crown.
Stevens, having seen the latest Triple Crown winner up close, believes the narrative that Secretariat would have dominated American Pharoah is all wrong.
“It’s my feeling that, had somebody been able to engage him — like six furlongs out or something — we may have seen a performance like Secretariat where he won by 25 lengths,” Stevens said in a radio interview with The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan.
“He ran the second fastest Belmont ever,” he said. “And I really think, had somebody engaged him early on around the turn, he probably would have broke Secretariat’s record.”
Of Saturday’s race, Stevens’ approach, he said, was exactly that — to wait for another horse to challenge American Pharoah early on, then swoop past them to victory.
“To be honest with you, the second stride out of the gate — my horse broke really well, and he’s not a speed horse at all, but he got a flyer at the start — and second jump out of there, Victor [Espinoza] was gone,” he said of American Pharoah’s jockey. “He angled straight to the fence, and reached up and took a hold of American Pharoah, and the race was over with the third jump out of the starting gate.
“I mean, literally,” he added. “It was over with. And everybody was running for second money.”
Stevens, so there was no confusion, clarified further that, instantly out of the break, he knew the race was over.
“Instantly. Instantly,” he repeated. “It was done like in .5 seconds. Everybody was running for second. I mean the horse was so talented, he just outclassed everybody. And, you know, Bob [Baffert] had talked about how Silver Charm had withstood the Triple Crown grind — he had actually put weight on going into the Belmont back in ’97. And American Pharoah did the same thing.
“When I saw his workout at Churchill Downs on YouTube, I think it was seven days or six days before the race, and somebody asked me, you know, ‘Do you guys have any shot of beating this horse?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if he doesn’t make his plane.'”