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Between Horses, Hoops And Ice, A Triple-Fine Sports Weekend

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So did you see this? Eight horses left the starting gates at last night's Belmont Stakes. But one horse was quickly out in front, and he stayed there. After a mile and a half, Victor Espinoza raced American Pharoah across the finish line to win the first Triple Crown in 37 years. Mike Pesca, host of Slate's The Gist podcast was watching. He joins us now. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA: Hey.

MARTIN: So this wasn't even close. I mean, this horse just blew the other ones away.

PESCA: Well, like Kierkegaard said, history can only be understood backwards but has to be lived forward. And the same is true in horse racing. So in retrospect, yeah, he likes to go out front. He ran wire-to-wire. And then, when he came into the home stretch, he hit a light challenge from Frosted on the outside. But of course, you know, the weight on him wasn't just Victor Espinoza's 112 pounds. It was this 37 years. It was the idea that we'll never see a Triple Crown. Horse racing has changed so much. But, you know, he not only blew the field but blew those preconceived notions away. It was a glorious run.

MARTIN: Yeah, OK, so 1978, that was the last time a horse came in first at all three of these races, right?

PESCA: Yep.

MARTIN: Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont. Should we be surprised that it's taken this long for another horse to get the Triple Crown?

PESCA: Well, yes, in a way. And you've probably, if you paid attention - you've probably done this interview, like, eight or nine times because there was a horse with the Triple Crown on the line...

MARTIN: Yes.

PESCA: And someone will say, well, you have to understand; the Belmont is a race that's almost 150 years old. Racing was different then. Stamina was more important, and now horses are either bred for speed or bred for stamina. And the other portion is he's racing - all these guys were racing rivals who took out a - took off a race. So he was - he's more tired...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: The Preakness, the Derby winner is going to be more tired. Still, that said, you look at how close some of the other horses came, some of trainer Bob Baffert's other horses, you know, real quiet, getting nipped by a nose. It is a little statistically improbable that it didn't happen.

MARTIN: So, you know, this is a big deal. A lot of people are excited about. Does it - is it just a blip, or does this change horse racing?

PESCA: I think, sure, it gives a lot of attention to horse racing. People are talking about it in the same breaths they're talking about the NBA and the NHL finals. However, the huge thing about horse racing is that it used to be - it had dominance in our society when we were more agricultural, when it was one of the only sports in town and when it was the only way to legally gamble, you know? So horse racing began to decline about the same time state lotteries began to ascend. And if you look at how much money is bet on horse racing every year, it is going down and down and down. And the amount of money spent at casinos every year is going up and up and up. I think it'll help a little. I think that this horse could get 75,000 or $100,000 at stud. But as for the overall sport, I think it might nudge it only a little bit.

MARTIN: OK, you got a curveball?

PESCA: I do. So NBA finals are today. And we have Game 2, I mean, Steph Curry against LeBron James. Sure, there are other guys involved. But I wanted to talk about the reigning MVP and LeBron James. Now, Steph Curry and LeBron James were on the All-NBA team. And the other members of that team were Anthony Davis, James Harden and Marc Gasol. And guess what?

MARTIN: What?

PESCA: Curry beat Davis in the first round. He beat Gasol in the second round. He beat Harden in the third round. If the Warriors beat the Cavs, he will have beaten - or, you know, conquered...

MARTIN: Yeah.

PESCA: Every other member of that All-NBA team.

MARTIN: Whoa. Mike Pesca. His podcast is called The Gist. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So if you want to savor that Triple Crown moment a bit longer, go to npr.org to read an original essay by author Laura Hillenbrand on American Pharoah's win. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.