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ELMONT, New York (Reuters) - American Pharoah entered the pantheon of U.S. thoroughbred racing's all-time greats by winning the Belmont Stakes on Saturday to become the first horse to capture the coveted Triple Crown in nearly four decades.
In winning his seventh straight race, in wire-to-wire fashion, American Pharoah became the 12th horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
Wood Memorial winner Frosted finished second, 5-1/2 lengths behind American Pharoah, while Keen Ice grabbed the show spot.
As he crossed the finish line, jockey Victor Espinoza pumped his fist and the sold-out crowd of 90,000 at Belmont Park cheered wildly.
Espinoza, who failed twice before to win the Triple Crown by losing the Belmont Stakes, did not have to wait long before knowing it was going to be his day.
"I had the best feeling ever when he crossed the first turn," Espinoza said. "The way he runs and stretches legs, and the way he hits the ground, it doesn’t feel like you’re going that fast. It feels like he’s in slow motion."
The victory secured American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert's first Triple Crown after the Hall of Famer was denied three previous times at the Belmont Stakes, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002.
"Down the backside he was in a groove," said Baffert. "He’s a great horse, I knew he was going to do it. I just feel like I have a very special horse, he’s the one that won. It wasn’t me."
American Pharoah, the muscular son of 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, now has seven victories in eight career starts. He paid $3.50, $2.80 and $2.50 for a $2 ticket.
The winning time of 2:26.65 for a mile-and-a-half over a fast track was well off the record of 2:24 set in 1973 by Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
American Pharoah held a two-length lead over Frosted at the top of the stretch before widening it out and winning easily.
Prior to American Pharoah's victory on Saturday, 13 horses since Affirmed's Triple Crown had triumphed in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but failed to win the Belmont.
American Pharoah won the May 2 Derby by a length and two weeks later claimed the Preakness Stakes by a jaw-dropping seven lengths in a driving rainstorm.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg, Editing by Gene Cherry