12/30/2015 9:44AM

Jerardi: American Pharoah turned racing dreams into reality in 2015

Barbara D. Livingston
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland was one of the highlights of 2015.

When I think back on 2015, I will most remember three moments: the final 200 yards of the Belmont Stakes, the sound and feeling right after those 200 yards, and Saratoga on the Friday morning before the Travers.

That Friday morning never happens, of course, without that Saturday evening at Belmont. For some unknown reason, the sporting gods finally decided to smile on horse racing, a sport that has been great at building to a crescendo and impossibly bad at proper endings.

Even though I knew in my rational mind that American Pharoah was just about a cinch in the Belmont and really looked like he could not lose as the race unfolded, I admit to having flashbacks when Frosted began to move on the far turn. Thoughts of Belmonts seemingly won and then ultimately lost disappeared in the moment when Victor Espinoza finally asked Pharoah to run. The response was instantaneous, the race was over, and the question of what 37 years of frustration being relieved might sound and feel like was about to be answered.

I don’t believe in jinxes or superstitions, but I was wavering after so much that had seemed so obvious had gone so horribly wrong over so many years. I hung out near American Pharoah and trainer Bob Baffert before the horse headed for the paddock, just as I had done for Smarty Jones and California Chrome, two horses who I really thought could not lose at Belmont Park.

I watched Smarty Jones from the grandstand, just in front of trainer John Servis. I watched California Chrome from the press box. I was torn on Pharoah: Did I want to hear it or see it? I chose to see it, so, from the press box, I could not hear anything like what those in the stands or on the apron heard, but I could hear enough through the glass as the building began to shake. And I could definitely feel it, especially when Espinoza took Pharoah on that long stroll back down the homestretch, letting section after section share in the moment.

When I left Belmont Park that night for the drive home, I assumed that nothing could possibly equal that scene. I was happily wrong.

On the last Friday of August, Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., became a parking lot just after the sun came up. I figured maybe a few thousand people would come to the track that morning to watch American Pharoah gallop. I was way wrong.

I was hanging with Daily Racing Form’s David Grening in a box just by the finish line when I decided to explore by walking to the end of the grandstand. It took until the final few sections to see an area that was not jammed. I have no idea how many people were there to see the Triple Crown winner cruise around the track for a few minutes, but I would not argue with 15,000.

Whatever it was, it decisively answered the question of what a Triple Crown winner would mean for horse racing. The crowd was a harbinger of the television ratings that would follow the next day and for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland.

I left Saratoga that Sunday morning with only one wish: that impetuous owner Ahmed Zayat would not follow through with that silly retirement talk.

If you understand the sport at all, you knew that Pharoah was the best horse in the Travers, and not by a little bit. You also knew that if maintaining his perfect 2015 record was the only consideration, the horse never would have been put on another plane back East so soon after the Haskell trip. Pharoah had almost overcome that decision, the wild Friday gallop spurred on by the fans, and a race scenario that has beaten horses forever.

This was not a horse ready for retirement. This was a horse sitting on one final race that would confirm his greatness, a pair of happy endings in one year for one horse.

The Classic was terrific but more an affirmation than a competition. The racing gods assured it with scratches in the final hours, leaving Pharoah to notch one final victory in a year that began in the uncertainty of whether the champion 2-year-old male would even make it back in time for the Kentucky Derby and ended just a few miles up Versailles Road from where the Triple Crown winner’s next career will begin in 2016.