Hmmm. Is that so?
I had been a student of Thorough-bred racing since that glorious day in 1955 when Swaps beat back a desperately charging Nashua to win the Kentucky Derby. Over the ensuing 60 years, I would see nearly all the great dazzlers of the American turf—from Round Table and Kelso to Cigar and Rachel Alexandra—and relish them all, while judging them according to their lights.
One thing is certain: I would not judge American Pharoah, by any standard I am familiar with, to be a great racehorse. I was taught early on—by old-time trainers and turf writers, especially the eloquent Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton—that the word “great” is not to be tossed about lightly, like ground pepper on a dinner salad, when describing racehorses.
As I told one of the many commentators who sought my view of American Pharoah’s “greatness”: “I have no idea how good he is, and no real clue as to his place in history. He has yet to show his mettle under fire.”
Very good versus great
The word “great” was sacrosanct in the shedrows that I haunted as a young man.
Example One: Hatton and John M. Gaver, Sr., the Hall of Fame trainer at the storied Greentree Stud, were sipping whiskey with a few other old horsemen in Gaver’s office one day in the late 1950s when someone mentioned the great handicap horse Tom Fool. Under Gaver, the handsome bay had won 10 of 10 races in 1953, all stakes, including the daunting New York Handicap Triple Crown—the Metropolitan Mile and the Suburban and Brooklyn handicaps—while carrying from 128 to 136 pounds, substantial burdens even in those days.
Tom Fool was so dominant that his last four victories—in the Wilson, the Sysonby, the Whitney and the Pimlico Special—were run without wagering. At year’s end, he beat out the immortal “Gray Ghost,” Native Dancer, for Horse of the Year honors.
The discussion in Gaver’s office that day turned to equine greatness—to indubitable giants such as Man o’ War, Count Fleet and Citation—and one of the horsemen raised the name of Tom Fool. “Now he was a great racehorse, don’t you think?”
Gaver thought for a moment, Hatton recalled, and finally said, “Well, he was certainly a very good racehorse.”
Example Two: Hatton wrote his Racing Form column in a private aerie high above the press box at Belmont Park, and I found him there one afternoon in early 1973. He was still sitting at his typewriter long after he had finished his column. I asked him what he was doing so late. “I’m answering a letter,” he said. “A man asked me to name five great racehorses of the century.” Hatton had seen Old Rosebud win the 1914 Kentucky Derby by eight lengths in record time, and had spent the next 60 years at the races, watching champions come and go.
“Five great racehorses?” I said. “That shouldn’t be a problem for you.”
“You’d think so,” Charlie said. “But I can only think of four.”
The luckiest Triple Crown winner?
Such were the standards observed in an era of the American turf as faded in memory now as the streetcar or Stetson hat, back when a horse had to flash bolts of unmistakable brilliance, as Old Rosebud did—or repeatedly crush and dominate his foes, as Man o’ War did—to even be considered great.
So I was reduced to answering queries about American Pharoah with such unseemly squirming as, “The Belmont was a fine performance!” And, “I love to watch this horse run; he’s such a beautiful mover.” And, “I laud his talent, his versatility, his consistency.…” And so on and on.
I feared the ghosts of Gaver and Hatton would strike me down if I dared to go any further. American Pharoah has not yet proven himself to be a great horse, certainly not by their standard, nor even by my own less rigorous measures.
No one can deny that, in sweeping the Triple Crown, he pulled off the most difficult feat in the sport, among the toughest in all of sports, and this in an era when horses are not bred to run 12 furlongs, or even 10. So, he is now the 12th member of an exclusive club, stretching from Sir Barton to Affirmed. But to earn his Triple Crown, it must be pointed out, American Pharoah enjoyed three perfect trips, each marked by a loping early pace, and he was never subjected to the kind of pressure that either defeats or brings out the best in a racehorse.
I found myself asking: Was this not the luckiest Triple Crown winner ever? Before the Preakness, in the dining room at Pimlico, I saw trainer Bob Baffert pacing nervously. It was an hour to post time. The sky was a gathering roil of clouds. “Boy, I hope it rains,” Bob said. “My horse loves the mud!”
Alas, 10 minutes before post time, as if Providence had heard Baffert’s prayer, the sky unleashed a deluge that turned the track into a chocolate mousse. Of course, American Pharoah won as he pleased, in the easiest of victories. Eerily enough, 10 minutes after the race, high winds whisked the clouds away and out came the sun over Pimlico. Thank you, Lord.
The crowns of the 70s
Of the Triple Crown winners I had seen, the one American Pharoah most resembles is the brilliantly fast Seattle Slew, a true miler whose competition in the three races was so mediocre that his trainer, Billy Turner, had the luxury of sending him on long, slow gallops to get him off the muscle and prepare him to race longer than he really wanted to go. He won all three, but the Derby and Belmont, especially, were run in trotting-horse time. It was not until he got to his 4-year-old year, when he defeated far superior horses while carrying high weights, that his true greatness became evident.
That year, he absolutely crushed the 3-year-old Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in the 1978 Marlboro Cup, vaulting to the lead out of the gate and winning by three lengths in 1:45 4/5, only two ticks off Secretariat’s world mark. Two weeks later he galloped off in the 1 -mile Woodward, winning by four over Exceller in 2:00 minutes flat.
Finally, in the race for which he is probably best remembered, the 1-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Slew got caught in a speed duel with Affirmed through six furlongs in 1:09 2/5, looked like Dead Horse Walking at the top of the stretch, but simply wouldn’t yield when Exceller tried to drive past him in the upper stretch. Eventually Exceller nudged ahead. But Slew came back and was actually gaining on Exceller in the final yards, only to lose it by the flare of a nostril.
It was a gutsy, grand, magnificent performance, the signature flourish of a great racehorse.
The 4-year-old Slew was the second greatest racehorse I ever saw—Secretariat remains simply nonpareil, an original whom a dying Hatton once described as “the most capable racehorse I have ever seen.”
Great and near great
The first great racehorse I ever encountered was Swaps. I was on hand in Chicago, in the summer of 1956, when he won the Washington Park Mile in 1:33 2/5, his sixth track record set in a year in which he also broke four world marks, three of them at Hollywood Park. He turned for home that day after six furlongs in a sensational 1:07 4/5, his eyes afire as he plunged through the gloaming, and jockey Eddie Arcaro had to look twice when he glanced over from Summer Tan and saw that Bill Shoemaker had Swaps’ neck bowed. “I couldn’t believe it,” Arcaro once told me. “He looked like he was running easily. In 1:07 4/5! Oh, Swaps was a great racehorse!”
I saw a few others along the way. Round Table, a champion of the late 1950s, was like a perfectly tuned clock who left the gate and went tick-tock, tick-tock for a mile and a quarter, as at home on the dirt as on the grass. Nor is there any denying the greatness of the grand gelding Kelso, five-time Horse of the Year in the 1960s, or those other champions from that decade: Buckpasser, Damascus and Dr. Fager.
Ruffian was the greatest 2-year-old filly I ever saw, by far, Forego and John Henry the two greatest geldings. And has there ever been a 4-year-old since Tom Fool who had a year like 1979 Kentucky Derby winner Spectacular Bid, who went 9 for 9 in 1980 and ended the season with a walkover in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park?
Since Spectacular Bid left the scene, and with the once-rich American Thoroughbred gene pool seriously drained by Irish, Arab and Japanese buyers seeking to breed the finest and most valuable horses in the world, great horses have grown rarer on the American racing scene. 1989 Kentucky Derby victor Sunday Silence won the Breeders’ Cup Classic like a great racehorse, beating the gifted Easy Goer by a neck and racing the mile and a quarter at Gulfstream Park in 2:00 1/5.
No doubt Cigar was the greatest racehorse I saw throughout the entire 1990s. Indeed, perhaps the only one. Cigar’s half-length victory in the ’96 Dubai World Cup, his fourteenth victory in a 16-race win streak, left hanging in my Louvre of memories this moving sequence of prints—first of Cigar grabbing the lead near the top of the stretch, then Soul of the Matter charging to his side with 300 yards to run, and then Cigar battling back and edging away to win by half a length. The fourth print, taken under the lights of the winner’s circle, reveals a gallant but weary Cigar stumbling repeatedly as he strode about the circle, his lissome body glistening with sweat, while Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the father of Dubai racing, turned and quietly greeted Cigar’s owner, Allen Paulson, with this: “Congratulations. You have the greatest racehorse in the world.”
Of all the exceptional horses seen in this young century—from Ghostzapper to Zenyatta—it would be difficult to find any who announced her greatness with the drama and panache of Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
That glorious season she was a passing comet in the racing skies, doing things I’d never seen a filly do before. After Rachel beat mere fillies in her first four races, a skein that culminated in her 20-length victory in the Kentucky Oaks, Jess Jackson bought her for $10 million and immediately turned her against the boys.
It was a bold decision in a world where fillies, especially at 3, are oft protected like pieces of Dresden china. But there she was in the Preakness Stakes, charging to the lead at the first turn, opening two lengths on the bend for home, and beating Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to the wire, a length clear. Rachel thus became the first filly since Nellie Morse, in 1924, to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. Trainer Steve Asmussen gave her a quick breather at Belmont Park, where he ran her at a field of fillies in the Mother Goose, and she turned it into an exhibition, winning under a pull by 19 lengths in 1:46 2/5, breaking Ruffian’s stakes record.
That was the last she saw of fillies. Asmussen wheeled her back in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth against colts, and she simply crushed them, winning by six lengths over Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird. She smoked the nine furlongs in 1:47 1/5, the fastest Haskell in 22 years.
Nor was she finished making history. Jackson then pointed her for the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, an event that no filly had ever won. In that race, Rachel showed her greatness, revealing every quality one could ask for in a racehorse—brilliant speed, stamina, an unflinching will to win and a courage under fire. In the fading afternoon light at Saratoga, her older male rivals all made runs at her on the lead, but she peeled them back, one by one, like the layers of an onion. Finally, down the stretch Macho Again closed on her in the final yards. But, as the crowd roared, Rachel persevered, finally winning it by a stretched neck in a climax that would ultimately crown her as America’s Horse of the Year … and with a place in history all her own.
Tom Hammond may be right, that a Triple Crown winner gets a free pass into the hall of equine greatness, but I have enough Hatton left in me to draw a tighter cinch around the question. Since he swept the Triple Crown in June, the colt has done nothing to clarify his place in racing history—to answer the question of whether he is any more than merely another good, solid, consistent racehorse.
Pharoah ran twice in the summer after the Belmont, winning the Haskell in a performance more impressive than any of his Triple Crown victories. He then finished second, beaten three-quarters of a length by Keen Ice, in a game but relatively dull effort in the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Pharoah thus joined Man o’ War and two Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Secretariat, in suffering a stunning upset at a track known as “The Graveyard of Favorites.” The colt had been put through an enervating, bi-coastal racing and training schedule since the Belmont and had done his major training before the Travers at Del Mar Racetrack in California, rather than at Saratoga, a serious training mistake given the fact that horses who do not train at the Spa are at a disadvantage racing against horses, like Keen Ice, who do.
American Pharoah is a wonderful racehorse, but he still has some hard wood to chop this fall, hopefully in the Breeders’ Cup, before he earns that highest of Thoroughbred accolades.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #458, November 2015.