A Triple Crown Winner at Last

Image: By Maryland GovPics (2015 Preakness Stakes) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image: By Maryland GovPics (2015 Preakness Stakes) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
That’s why it’s called “the most elusive championship in all of sports.”

It’s taken 37 years since Affirmed won the coveted Triple Crown of thoroughbred horseracing in 1978 for another winner to break through.

On June 6 American Pharoah (an inadvertent misspelling of “pharaoh”) became only the 12th horse since 1875 to win the Triple Crown. The bay colt ran wire-to-wire in the lead in perfect weather before 90,000 raucous fans at Belmont Park to win by 5 ½ lengths. After winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, all within the last five weeks, American Pharoah wore earplugs to muffle the distracting noise.

All the other seven entries in the 2015 (and 147th running of the) Belmont Stakes had skipped the Preakness three weeks earlier to rest. Many racing experts decried this approach, especially those owners who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to fail at the punishing 1 ½ mile distance of the Belmont.

American Pharoah won with the fourth-largest margin at Belmont, trailing only Citation’s 8-length victory (1948), Count Fleet’s 25-length win (1943), and Secretariat’s unbelievable 31-length chasm (1973). What’s more, with his smooth, glidingly long stride, American Pharoah’s time of 2:26:65 at Belmont is the second-fastest time in the Triple Crown series to Secretariat’s still-standing world record of 2:24:00.

Mexican-born jockey Victor Espinoza rode American Pharoah in all three legs of the Triple Crown. At 43, Espinoza is the oldest jockey and the first Hispanic to win the Triple Crown after two previous unsuccessful attempts. A wonderful first for this gracious athlete.

Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, trained the 3-year-old thoroughbred, and Baffert’s whole family was in attendance for the first time in his fourth agonizing attempt to win the Triple Crown. Well deserved, Mr. Baffert.

American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, is controversial. On June 4 the New York Times reported extensively on Zayat’s legal proceedings, prior bankruptcies, gambling habits, hot temper, and alleged failure to pay debts, much of which Zayat denies.

The Egyptian-born Zayat made his fortune selling beer in a Muslim country and has claimed both Muslim and Jewish faiths. He is a colorful figure, claiming attendance at Harvard (which the university denies), but took hearty congratulations from the “unofficial first lady of racing,” 93-year-old Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, who was on-hand at the New York track.

Like Secretariat, American Pharoah was the “horse of the year” as a 2-year-old, and, undoubtedly, like Secretariat, will be the “horse of the year” as a 3-year-old.

We used the metaphor of the Triple Crown race for our book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations. Our 3 legs of leadership—excellent, ethical, and enduring—are like the 3 legs of the Triple Crown race: difficult to achieve, but not impossible.

With the leadership team of Baffert and Espinoza, American Pharoah has entered the pantheon of horseracing greats with this crackling victory. Zayat’s conduct does not measure up to the standard of triple crown leadership from what we can discern, but Baffert’s and Espinoza’s conduct does.

We salute American Pharoah and team for winning “the most elusive championship in all of sports”—and for raising our sights and reminding us of what is possible.

Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of and speakers on Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the 2013 International Book Award (Business: General). Follow us on Twitter: @TripleCrownLead, @BobVanourek, @GVanourek. Sign up on our website to receive our newsletter and leadership blogs.