Readers of my blog know that I am a fan of Thoroughbred racing. I am keenly aware that there is a very dark, incredibly ugly underbelly to this “Sport of Kings.” I’m aware of the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs—very often to deadly effect—on these magnificent animals. I’m painfully aware of a horrible practice resulting in the death of hundreds of newborn foals annually so their mothers can be used to raise the baby of a much more valuable Thoroughbred mare. (The issue of nurse mare foals is one of the ugliest aspects of this sport.) But, these things aren’t what this blog post is about.
Rather, it’s about something that is driving me to scream in frustration at my computer monitor. On Saturday, June 6, 2015, a thirty seven year long drought ended. Oh, lightning tried to strike a few times in those long, disappointing, frustrating years, but never quite connected. This time, lightning did strike—in the form of a muscular bay colt with a ridiculously short tail—and American Pharoah became only the twelfth horse to claim Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. He now stands in incredibly elite company. For some perspective, since 1919 when Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner we’ve had more United States Presidents than Triple Crown winners.
I wasn’t duly impressed with American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, because it seemed AP was struggling to find both his stride and his speed. It wasn’t until he got clear—on the far outside, I might add—that he found his stride. He still didn’t find a lot of speed, but as a good friend of mine just recently said it’s not about breaking track records, it’s about coming across the finish line first. In the driving downpour that came with the running of the Preakness, he led wire to wire and really only showed any speed with a sixteenth of a mile to go when his jockey gave him a tap. At times, he seemed to be loafing, as if he was waiting for someone to join him in the front. One sports writer noted that it appeared AP was checking his messages on his iPhone for most of the Preakness. But it was that deceptive loafing and the sudden, amazing burst of speed and his ability to continue to accelerate that made me look at AP again. I climbed on the AP wagon after the Preakness. I called him the winner of the Triple Crown the morning after the Preakness and he is the first horse of the last six or seven possible winners I have thought had even a snow ball’s chance. (http://lyndajcox.blogspot.com/2014/05/mediocrity-horse-racing-and-dog-shows.html)
Usually when I watch a horse race, I’m shouting and cheering and screaming for my favorite the whole race. For the Belmont, I sat on the edge of the sofa, with my heart in my throat, begging whatever Higher Power to please let this horse be the one and murmuring instructions to AP’s jockey to keep him under wraps. The Belmont usually destroys the speed horses. Just ask Sham. AP didn’t have a great break from the gate but within a few strides, Victor Espinoza had him moved to the rail and into the lead. And, he never relinquished that lead. Halfway through the race, I said, “Not yet. Hold him a little longer. Not yet, Victor.”
When he made that sweeping turn into the homestretch, I jumped up and shouted, “DROP THE HAMMER NOW!” As if he heard me, Espinoza let the reins out a notch and AP shifted gears and began pulling away from the field. Every stride, every bunching and uncoiling of muscles, every second, AP drew further and further away from the field. I watched with tears in my eyes as the long drought without a Triple Crown winner came to a decisive end.
Finally, those nay-sayers were silenced. The Triple Crown isn’t impossible to achieve, it’s just damned hard. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s the test of champions.
Within hours of AP’s win of the Triple Crown, the inevitable comparisons began. Even before the Belmont Stakes, Penny Chenery (owner of the great Secretariat) said the colt doesn’t measure up to the greats, such as Affirmed, War Admiral, or Secretariat. (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/the-turnstile/secretariat-s-owner–american-pharoah-doesn-t-measure-up-against-all-time-greats-191957211.html) With all due respect, ma’am, Secretariat lost three races before he started his bid for the Triple Crown, and the last time he was started in a race, his retirement race, Secretariat was handed his gorgeous, muscular hind-end. As a Triple Crown contender very few people took Secretariat seriously, even after he won the Derby. I’m old enough to remember the debate about Secretariat and Man O’War and how heated both camps were in proclaiming each animal to be the greatest of all time. It’s a debate that still rages to this day, long after both animals have gone to Heaven’s greener pastures.
I can’t recall if there was such a debate about Secretariat and Seattle Slew or Secretariat and Affirmed because those were years I refused to pay much attention to Thoroughbred racing. My heart was shattered into a million pieces on July 6, 1975 and other than watching the Triple Crown races in ’77 and ’78, I wasn’t following the racing world. (Why I stopped following for many years is detailed in this blog post here: http://lyndajcox.blogspot.com/2012/05/broken-wings-and-hoofbeats-maybe.html)
At the time though I thought the comparisons between Secretariat and Man O’War were ridiculous. There was and is no manner of comparing the two horses, both known to their fans as “Big Red.” Track conditions, training techniques, manners of conditioning these superb athletes had changed dramatically between Man O’War and his descendent, Secretariat. I think it’s still ridiculous, more so with this comparison. There is simply no manner to compare Secretariat to American Pharoah, short of someone creating a time machine and transporting one animal to another time. Yes, AP’s fractions were slow in all three of the Triple Crown races, until he turned on the juice in the last sixteenth of a mile in the Belmont—when he also beat Secretariat’s time for that particular stretch of race track.
A friend of mine suggested that perhaps AP’s fractions were so much slower because he didn’t have a Sham to push him, to challenge him, as Secretariat did. Most people involved with Thoroughbred racing will state that these animals are amazingly competitive. Let another horse challenge them and they respond with a greater effort. Perhaps the reason AP’s fractions were so much slower was because there wasn’t enough depth in the field to actually challenge him to exert himself.
This comparison is also belittling. It cheapens a spectacular win, a masterful ride by a skilled jockey astride a magnificently trained and conditioned animal. I understand the human emotions involved. As I said, I’m old enough to remember watching that “tremendous machine” rolling along the massive, wide turn and pointing his nose toward the finish line in that killing field of so many dreams also known as the home-stretch at Belmont Park. I know people who to this day still tear up when they speak of watching Secretariat open his lead by lengths and then furlongs and then in distance that can only be measured in large fractions of a mile. Even though many of them never actually laid eyes on the horse other than through the medium of television or in print, Secretariat is the horse of their heart.
So along comes this new-comer, this descendant of Secretariat, and this newly crowned king cannot be allowed to usurp that place in their hearts. American Pharoah has earned the right to stand alongside the racing greats, like Affirmed and Seattle Slew and Man O’War and yes, even alongside Secretariat. He won that right on a hot day in June, on a mile and a half oval in Elmont, NY by defeating more rested horses, and even a horse that hadn’t even ran in either the Derby or the Preakness.
No one—not sports writers, not casual fans, not rabid ones either, and certainly not the acknowledged old blood royalty of Thoroughbred racing—has the right to try to take that from American Pharoah or his connections.
The King is dead. Long live the King.