The echoes began somewhere around the final turn. They could be heard beneath the roar of 90,000 fans blaring from the monumental grandstand. They could be heard above the trembling baritone of announcer Larry Collmus, filling the expanse of loam that led to the Belmont Stakes finish line.
The echoes came from an Associated Press report in 1946, when “the chocolate champion with the deformed foot came from far back to score by three lengths in a show of running power which made his Kentucky Derby and Preakness triumphs appear easy by comparison.”
That was Assault, winning the Triple Crown.
The echoes came down from 1935, through the lilting pen of Bryan Field, who wrote of a Belmont winner “slashing onward through drenching rain and slippery footing … the only horse forging on with any show of strength and power.”
That was Omaha, winning the Triple Crown.
And now the echoes swirled, trailing comet tails of Triple Crown magic. One horse was “moving like a tremendous machine.” Another was “spurting through the sunshine with that free-and-easy lope,” while still another came to the final moments of the Belmont Stakes “running with a torn heel, but as easily as if he had wings.”
Then, as quickly as they came, the echoes faded, replaced on that radiant spring day in June of 2015 with the giddy reality that the past had become present, that history was alive, and that 37 years since Affirmed wasn’t too long to wait after all, especially if the Triple Crown was going to feel like this.
“For all the world,” wrote sports essayist Charles P. Pierce, “it looked like American Pharoah had allowed Frosted to get just close enough and then, suddenly, the space between them exploded and flooded with pure joy—joy that flowed through the sunlit stands and spread to the grounds of Belmont Park and beyond. Everyone felt its sweep.”
Sports fans have been thoroughly indoctrinated to believe that winning the Triple Crown is the ultimate achievement for a Thoroughbred racehorse. But after 37 years and a dozen heart-breaking disappointments, the story was wearing thin. Fewer and fewer fans could remember precisely what a Triple Crown looked like. Those who could had only hazy images of an analog past, smears of red and black across television screens of modest dimensions.
“I want there to be another Triple Crown winner for selfish reasons, but not the ones you might think,” said veteran racing writer Steve Haskin just prior to the 2015 Belmont. “I’ve already seen three in my lifetime. Now I want people who have never experienced the thrill of a Triple Crown winner to have one of their own. They shouldn’t have to take my word for it.”
Haskin’s was a noble sentiment, but impractical given the odds piling up against a Triple Crown happening again in anyone’s lifetime. And yet, in cold analysis, the chances were exactly the same as each racing season dawned: Here are the horses, here are the races, let’s see if one of them can win all three.
At the beginning of 2015 a few people actually believed it might happen. Most of them were holed up in Southern California, where the 2-year-old male champion of 2014 was being trained by Bob Baffert.
American Pharoah’s 2-year-old season was cut short by an injury. His early 3-year-old training was briefly curtailed by a foot bruise that required special shoeing. And yet, each time Baffert produced American Pharoah for a workout at Santa Anita Park, cameras turned his way, professional clockers leaned forward in anticipation, and veteran trainers stopped in their tracks, hungry to believe what they thought they saw.
They thought they saw what John Hervey saw when he wrote about 1941 Triple Crown winner Whirlaway:
“He can go far as well as fast. He has displayed high courage. There is in his composition that steel and iron which modern hothouse methods of speed production have rendered all too rare.”
They thought they saw what Joe H. Palmer saw when he wrote about 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation:
“He is a very smooth, very bloodlike dark bay, just over 16 hands, almost perfect in conformation, which means that no one feature stands out over another, and with a beautifully chiseled head. The nostrils are large and flaring, the eyes unusually expressive.”
They thought they saw in American Pharoah what Laura Hillenbrand wrote about Triple Crown winner War Admiral in Seabiscuit: An American Legend: “He was the picture of exquisite, streamlined elegance, light and fine and quick. He moved like a bird: flickering, darting, fluttering. The horsemen gaped. Someone mused that when this one was done with racing, no one would remember Man o’ War.”
Poised at the threshold
It is a rare horse who approaches perfection in every gait. The fine mare Flawlessly walked out of her stall as if she’d slept on a park bench and then raced fluidly into the Hall of Fame. John Henry would shuffle his feet and gallop as if bored, but in full flight his stride became a picture of ruthless efficiency. Zenyatta herself, as grand a Thoroughbred who ever lived, galloped like a card table tumbling down a flight of stairs. But that was at half speed. When she was turned loose to run, she made the angels weep.
When he walks, American Pharoah’s back feet overstep the hoof prints of his forefeet by a good six inches, a function of conformation that tips the length of his stride. At a gallop he is all forward motion, nothing off to either side, like a power saw cutting lengthwise through a ripe piece of timber. Finally, the transition from controlled gallop to racing speed becomes a parlor trick, a sleight of hand so smoothly accomplished that no one notices until it’s too late, and American Pharoah is gone.
Comparisons were becoming difficult, but if nothing else American Pharoah’s fans could take their cues from the best. This one could have been written about Pharoah:
“Affirmed looked every inch a colt for the lithographs,” wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jim Murray after the 1978 Kentucky Derby. “He went about his work with the bored efficiency of a Joe DiMaggio getting under a line drive.… More than 130,000 people were screaming, three bands were playing, helicopters were hovering overhead and Affirmed acted as if he were in church. Lighting candles.”
This was American Pharoah, serenity on the hoof. But behavior aside he needed that perfect stride to compensate for a lost shoe in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in his first start of the 2015 season. He needed every bit of his natural prowess—plus a good measure of heart—to deal with a huge field and a tough opponent named Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby. And when the torrential rains came at Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes, American Pharoah’s floating action treated the muddy main track as if it were nothing more than truffles and brie.
With the colt poised at the threshold of the Triple Crown, it had become widespread knowledge that American Pharoah was not only the most famous racehorse in America, he also was the most accommodating. Selfie shots with the young champ began sprouting up on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in numbers that challenged the social media primacy of kittens, babies and attractive plates of food. The Baffert crew played along, realizing that American Pharoah loved the attention and never turned a hair.
“It is an honor to be able to share such a horse with the fans,” said Ahmed Zayat, American Pharoah’s proud owner and breeder. “As long as it’s OK with Bob.” It was OK with Bob. And why not? If a little human interaction was good enough for the most popular Triple Crown winner of all time, why not Pharoah?
“Secretariat was an amiable, gentlemanly colt, with a poised and playful nature that at times made him seem as much a pet as was the stable dog,” wrote his biographer, William Nack. “I was standing in front of his stall one morning, writing, when he reached out, grabbed my notebook in his teeth and sank back inside, looking to see what I would do.”
Work still to be done
Even as American Pharoah’s popularity soared, there was work still to be done. The mile and a half of the Belmont Stakes is like no other race a young horse could face. And yet, there was a feeling in the air at Belmont Park that American Pharoah was up to the challenge, just as another exciting colt had answered the call of the Triple Crown decades before.
“From the first day he went to the races, Seattle Slew has done everything asked of him,” wrote Red Smith in The New York Times on the eve of the 1977 Belmont. “And the gut feeling here is that he has reserves that have not yet been called upon.”
American Pharoah turned Belmont Park into a madhouse. Those 90,000 fans jammed the big grandstand in hopes of witnessing Triple Crown history, and if it happened, the 12th would be every bit as exciting as the first:
“Thousands made the trip to the track just to get a look at the horse that leaped into fame by graduating from the maiden ranks in the Kentucky Derby,” wrote the New York Times in 1919. “Of these a goodly portion visited the paddock to obtain a close-up view of the new racing wonder. As soon as Sir Barton appeared he was surrounded by a dense throng.”
In fact, when Sir Barton won that 1919 Belmont Stakes there was no such concept as the American Triple Crown. The formal idea was spawned in 1930 on the sturdy shoulders of Gallant Fox, a colt described by his owner as having “the look of eagles” from the time he was a foal.
Just as Gallant Fox made the 1930 Belmont look easy, so did American Pharoah race around the massive oval seemingly without a care. There was that brief moment when Frosted appeared to challenge at the top of the stretch, but it was an illusion. It was American Pharoah’s day, just as it was Citation’s day 67 years before.
“It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime demonstrations of championship class,” wrote Gene Ward in the New York Daily News in 1948. “In little conversational clusters the fans still were talking about Citation, and how they saw him become the eighth winner of the Triple Crown, long after he had been led off to the barn for his dinner.”
It was, and it was also a dream come true. From the moment Sir Barton crossed the wire in the 1919 Belmont Stakes until the death of Seattle Slew in May of 2002 there had been at least one living, breathing Triple Crown winner somewhere in a pasture or a stall, serving as a vivid reminder that a 3-year-old Thoroughbred could win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes if the stars were aligned just right. Now, finally, there was another.
“This country likes its champions not only out front but well in front,” wrote the legendary Grantland Rice about Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. “Not only on top but high on top. It has become accustomed to a long parade of stars.”
Informed by the past, whether he knows it or not, American Pharoah has filled a hole in the soul of the unique American experience called the Triple Crown. Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed—they all pitched in to keep the flame alive. But now they can relax and step back, at least for a little while, because American Pharoah has joined the parade.
About the author: Jay Hovdey is an executive columnist for the Daily Racing Form. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Reader’s Digest. Winner of four Eclipse Awards for excellence in turf writing, Hovdey is the author of Whittingham: A Thoroughbred Racing Legend; Cigar: America’s Horse and Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #458, November 2015.