Sports

Triple treat: History made at Belmont

ELMONT, N.Y. ? Catholics make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Muslims flock to Mecca. Diehard horse racing enthusiasts come to Belmont Park exactly five weeks after the Kentucky Derby ? especially when there is an opportunity to witness history.
Heading into the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes Saturday, there had been 13 opportunities for a Triple Crown since Affirmed last accomplished the feat in 1978 (including 2012, when I?ll Have Another was scratched the day before the race and retired due to injury).
All 12 horses that made it into the Belmont starting gate with a shot were favored to earn their way into racing immortality. They all failed.
Perhaps that?s why there were plenty of skeptics at Belmont Saturday. Virtually all of the 90,000 fanswantedAmerican Pharoah to win, but too many had experienced the feeling of so close, but yet so far. Count Bob Mullins among them.
?There were so many times that you were sure the horse was going to do it, only to be disappointed,” said Mullins, a retired Lynn firefighter whose passion for thoroughbred racing knows no bounds. “Sure, it felt different this year; but it felt different other times, too.”
So when jockey Victor Espinoza sent American Pharoah right to the lead in the 1?-mile Belmont, laying down the gauntlet for his seven competitors, Mullins was on his feet with the rest of the raucous Belmont crowd, hoping ? and praying, perhaps ? that this special three-year-old would be special enough to write a different ending.
After 37 years, the prayers were answered. American Pharoah led every step of the way, capturing the race known as the Test of a Champion by 5? lengths. As he galloped down the stretch and it became apparent he would not be caught, the noise level at Belmont easily eclipsed the sound of the jets taking off and landing at nearby JFK.
?I?ve never heard anything like that in my life,” Mullins said. “And I?m so glad I was there to experience it.”
There was a Suffolk Downs connection to the historical event, as Belmont track announcer Larry Collmus, who served in the same role at Suffolk from 1992 to 2007 and is also the voice of the Triple Crown races for NBC, was charged with calling the race for those in attendance and the millions watching on TV.
?American Pharoah makes his run for glory,” Collmus said as the horses straightened out in the home stretch, his voice rising with every word. “Here it is. The 37-year wait is over. American Pharoah is finally the one. American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown.”
It is a call that will be replayed millions of times, and that may only be in the next year. That?s pretty heady stuff for a guy from Maryland who started his career at Bowie Race Track as an 18-year-old in 1985 and worked his way up to the premier announcing job in all of racing.
?It?s sort of sunk in, but not quite,” Collmus said Sunday in between races at Belmont. “It was a moment so unbelievable ? it?s mind-boggling. And it?s pretty damn cool to be a part if it.”
The 15,212 fans who were at Suffolk Downs on New Year?s Day in 1992, when the track reopened after a two-year closure, could never have imagined that the new track announcer would one day be the one to call the next Triple Crown. And neither could Collmus.
?When I first came to Boston I would never have envisioned that a time would come that I would get an opportunity like (Saturday?s Belmont),” he said.
Collmus admitted he did jot down a few lines to use in case American Pharoah was successful, but he never looked at his notes, perhaps because he had read them so many times in the days leading up to the race. And even though American Pharoah was never seriously challenged, Collmus had to show some restraint, lest he crown the champ prematurely only to have him get caught.
?Between the eighth pole and the sixteenth pole, I knew for sure it was over,” Collmus said.
So did the rest of us who were there to witness one of the truly great moments in the modern history of American sport.

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