June 6th, 2015. Belmont Stakes day. There was yet another chance for a Triple Crown to become reality, as American Pharoah attempted to turn Derby glory and Preakness success into racing’s most elusive prize. A list of the names of horses who had prevailed in the first two legs and come up short in the third, the most taxing of all, revealed again that a very good horse is just not enough. He has to be great, in a class of his own. And that is just how American Pharoah was being described in the weeks, days, and especially when it got down to just hours until he contested the Belmont.
I’ve heard horses who were just one race away from being potential Triple Crown winners described as definitely being worthy and having what it takes to pull off that accomplishment. I understood, to those who were rooting for a Triple Crown winner, that it is hard not to seek out the reasons why any particular horse with a chance just might be the one to do it. I understood because I have walked that path too, since Silver Charm had his shot in 1997 and for quite a few horses after him. The racing-obsessed part of me wanted to see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime. By the time Silver Charm had a shot, it had been 19 years since a horse won it, and I was 18. Too young to have been alive when Affirmed and his young jockey won it. So it went, through Real Quiet, War Emblem, Charismatic…. on to Big Brown in 2008. I now believe Barbaro had the most likely combination of talent and ability to pull it off, out of all the horses that made their run through the three races from 1997 to 2014. But as is well-known, it was not his path to see his try at glory go beyond a few strides into the Preakness. Everything they said about him and that I saw myself – his floating running action that made everything look so effortless, most notably – really made me think it was his to lose. It is a shame he was injured, for his own sake naturally, but also because all questions about the capability of the undefeated colt who looked like he literally soared when he ran were left unanswered.
Then Big Brown had a shot in 2008. For reasons that have been forgotten, I really thought he would be the one to pull it off. Disillusion followed when he was pulled up in the Belmont, and never really given a chance to try. And that is when I began to quit expecting a Triple Crown winner. This is not meant to sound pessimistic. It was just pragmatic, realistic. I didn’t think it was an impossible feat. The right horse could probably still pull it off. But it was so much easier for a horse to win two legs and not the third, and there didn’t have to be a Triple Crown on the line to witness historic achievements in racing. Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta proved that.
Still, it was a good story to see California Chrome and Victor Espinoza have their moment in the spotlight last year. It was even more incredible to see Espinoza win back-to-back Kentucky Derbies, after he captured this year’s edition with American Pharoah. It brought back memories of the first time I witnessed a Triple Crown race at a track, when Espinoza and War Emblem captured the Preakness, and I cheered them on with a large group of people that had gathered to watch on the big screen in the Churchill Downs paddock. That memory stretches back to my earliest days in Kentucky, when I was just a visitor finally making my way to a bit of a personal mecca, the horse farms of the Bluegrass region and of course the home of the Kentucky Derby. I liked Espinoza’s seemingly sunny nature then and I liked to see it again as he added more Derby wins to his resume, handfuls of years later.
But most of all, I liked American Pharoah on a deep level, in a way I couldn’t shake. That too stretched back to earlier memory, this one rooted in the initial foray into an interest in racing that bloomed into a passion that never left. It was when Unbridled won his Kentucky Derby and trainer Carl Genter memorably provided a stretch call for owner Frances Genter. That now lives in Derby lore, and maybe it captivated me because it really showed how amazing it can be to someone to win that race. And maybe too I just liked Unbridled’s name, and the freedom it represented to follow your own path or your dreams.
Whatever it was, I followed that early interest in Unbridled – as said in a previous post – through the generations, until his great-grandson American Pharoah had his shot to win the Derby, proving himself to be the best of a class of deeply talented three-year-olds. They are no doubt still good horses, and some may still be close to greatness. But at every step of his Triple Crown run, from Louisville to Baltimore to New York, American Pharoah had a way of making them mere footnotes to his own legacy. I sensed that even when he entered the paddock for the Derby. There was just something about him that did put him in another class. I will never forget thinking, “Finally!” when he won the Derby, thinking how at last an Unbridled descendant wore the blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May. I will also never forget all the jubilation I felt when Espinoza brought him past my section of the grandstand and it was such an exciting moment to cheer on the newest Derby winner that it felt like my Derby win too, in a sense.
Then of course it was on to Baltimore. I had to work on Preakness day, which fell on my birthday again this year. I didn’t get to see the race until it had already been run, but I had no doubt American Pharoah would win it. About the next step – that elusive Belmont Stakes victory – I wasn’t so sure. He was very good, maybe even great, but I hesitated to get my hopes up too much. If it happened, it would happen. All the previous attempts made me just take a “wait and see” attitude. But beneath all that, I must have felt like he had a real chance. There were several good reasons for this: the impression I gained of him at Churchill Downs, that characteristic that emanated from him even before he won the Derby, of how good he really is; the way he shook off the less-than-ideal track conditions in the Preakness, as Pimlico was hit by a torrential downpour just minutes before the race, and still won it with ears pricked, easily and well within himself. There just almost didn’t seem to be a challenge for this colt whose gallop was described as being like a floating action, almost like he soared when he ran. That to me was reminiscent of the description given to Barbaro’s stride. Between his Preakness and Belmont, when I saw how even the sloppy track couldn’t stop him and the way it looked like nothing had been taken out of him, the way he moved so easily, I think deep down I really began to think it was time for the next name to be written into the list of Triple Crown winners.
When I had a dream a few days before the Belmont that he won it, and that I felt disbelief that it had actually happened and then joy like I felt when he won the Derby, it made me pause. I don’t place any stock in dreams for any kind of capability of telling the future, but I do believe sometimes they tell us something we realize on a subconscious level but don’t let come into our thoughts in our waking hours. I didn’t see that dream as a “prophecy” by any stretch of the imagination, but I did see it as further revealing that American Pharoah probably had what it took more than any horse had since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.
I read the statistics: Horses that haven’t raced at Belmont traditionally haven’t fared well at the track. American Pharoah had not raced at Belmont. Jockeys have to be familiar with the track. Espinoza had a small number of winners out of total mounts. But then, his total mounts at the track were a small pool too, given he is mostly California-based.
That is one thing about statistics. They represent what the average is, the norm. But all it takes is the right conditions for them to find an anomaly to the data they represent. I considered that. I still wasn’t trying to get my hopes up but under the surface I still couldn’t shake the confidence I had in Pharoah. In this case, all it took for those statistics not to matter was the right horse. If he truly was worthy of winning the Triple Crown, none of that would matter.
What I had realized in all the years of seeing horses fall short was that even if a horse only lost the Belmont by a nose, that was all the distinction necessary between a good horse and a great one. A Triple Crown winner would need no excuses, or for everything to go perfectly. Everything would go perfectly because he would just be great enough to make it go perfectly. That may sound naïve, since they are horses and can have off days and still be great, but I do believe what so many do: The Belmont is considered the Test of the Champion for a reason. Only the best horse will prevail there, after five weeks of travel and different race distances and surfaces.
So I found my way to Keeneland, in between working at a horse farm in the morning and before going to work at a different job that evening. I still wasn’t saying it out loud, that it was going to be all Pharoah at the wire. But I wasn’t ignoring my gut feeling either, borne out of my impression of him personally, even of the dream, and of everyone’s descriptions of how well he was still training and still floating over the ground with that effortless stride. I had considered going to Churchill to see him the weekend before the Belmont, where the interest in him was so strong that the track opened up special training hours for him in response to all the calls from people wanting to see him. I ended up opting for a relaxing day, but I followed the progress of his last two gallops there with interest.
When I pulled into the Keeneland grounds, it felt like a bit of deja vu, back to the day when I went there to bet on Empire Maker to win the Derby. I was in that fervent, “he-just-has-to-do-it” stage then, while I was being a bit more settled about Pharoah. But the same desire was there, to have a win ticket on each horse, almost like putting my money where my mouth is gave my hopes of victory for them more weight.
But in fact, I didn’t feel so over-excited about Pharoah as I almost had about Empire Maker, because it really almost seemed like a logical conclusion he was going to win and that is all there was to it. All these years of not seeing Triple Crown winners made me a bit cautious to say that out loud, but deep down I just knew.
So I got my win ticket with his name on it and a program from Belmont to fit into my racing memorabilia collection. Then I went to work, and finally got to watch the race when the day it was run was nearly concluded. Even though I said I wouldn’t get my hopes up again, even though I wondered how the game plan of going to the lead immediately would impact his chances at the finish, I felt hope surge to a crescendo as I saw he was running so easily and with barely controlled power. He was just asking to be let loose when the time was right. It was extraordinary, after all these years, that a horse had plenty in reserve, that he was just waiting to be asked to run. And his ears were pricked, and he was still running well within himself when Espinoza gave him the signal to go. He took up a two-length lead so smoothly it really did seem he just glided there, and everything fell into place. There was just nothing any horse in the field could do against all that latent talent that lives in American Pharoah. He opened that lead easily to 5 ½ lengths at the wire, and then I knew for sure at last what it takes for a horse to be a Triple Crown winner. It takes the horse that makes it look effortless, because if a horse even fell just a nose short, he was struggling with the task as it was laid out. All it took was the right horse, and here he is at last, the first one I’ve seen in my lifetime. I just knew nothing was going to get to him, and then began my litany of “He’s gonna do it, he’s gonna do it, he’s gonna do it” all the way down the stretch. It was just like the dream I had, with disbelief followed by joy.
There’s still disbelief, not in what Pharoah is capable of, but just that the words “Triple Crown winner” can finally be used again for a new name in the list of those that have accomplished racing’s hardest achievement. Just as I thought when he won the Derby and it went to an Unbridled descendant, “Finally!” The Triple Crown has been won again. It is amazing just to be able to type those words, to see them be true at last.
I saw a USA Today journalist recently wrote that a Triple Crown winner will not “revive a dying sport” mostly finding its fandom among senior citizens and no younger people. She clearly was out of touch with the racing world. I know all across Lexington, this victory was celebrated. My jobs bring me in contact with a lot of the public, and I know this to be true. And of course, Lexington is a cradle of racing. It is a city where people still stop to follow all of racing, not just its biggest days. It is a city where young and old flock to the races, where kids are brought to a Keeneland meet as a spring and fall ritual, one they continue into their teens, twenties and beyond. Maybe that is a statistical deviation, because Keeneland is such a unique track, but I see young kids gather at Louisiana tracks, at Santa Anita, at Churchill… American Pharoah’s history is rooted here, too, with his dam and sire both residing in central Kentucky, with his great-grandsire Unbridled lying at rest at historic Claiborne farm….
I won’t deny the racing industry has lost traction in the entertainment realm since Affirmed won the Crown. It is a different world. But American Pharoah pulled off a feat we may not see again for a long long time. His accomplishment means everything to many people who live and breathe racing, who find their livelihood because of it. And it means a good, lingering memory for its many fans across the globe, of the day Pharoah proved once more what Triple Crown greatness really means. That is an achievement that will endure and long be remembered. And I am so glad I got to be there on the first step of his journey on Derby day. What a glorious run. What a tremendous horse.