This coming weekend, horses across the country will be competing in stakes races. New champions will be crowned in January.
In a few more months, talk about the 2016 Triple Crown will become louder and more prevalent as a new crop of stars takes center stage.
Racing will indeed go on without American Pharoah.
Yet after six fabulous and unforgettable months of watching him evolve from a reigning 2-year-old champion and the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby into the first horse to ever complete a “Grand Slam,” racing was treated to a treasure chest of priceless memories that are certain to withstand the test of time.
As much as older fans have been reminiscing for decades about Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes or Affirmed’s epic battles with Alydar, a new generation now has its own Triple Crown winner and some spectacular moments involving him to celebrate and cherish. With festive enthusiasm, they can recount his crowning achievement, a decisive victory in the Belmont Stakes that ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought, or his final masterpiece, when he completed the “Grand Slam” in a manner befitting a once-in-a-generation champion, romping by 6 ½ lengths in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in his final start before heading off to the breeding shed.
There was no shortage of compelling moments and they will be happily shared and re-lived or analyzed and debated for many years to come.
As with any Triple Crown champion, the Belmont Stakes will always be the race people will recall first whenever his name is mentioned. The Breeders’ Cup Classic then raised the bar and gave the sport an achievement that will be inherently more difficult to capture than “merely” winning just the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
In a career that was a highlight film from his first win for Zayat Stables and trainer Bob Baffert through his last, it’s those two races that will naturally be at the forefront of most sports fans’ fond memories of the long-awaited 12th Triple Crown champion.
Yet for me, my thoughts of American Pharoah will center not on a race, but rather with a moment in time I had never seen before and most likely will not be a witness to ever again.
As my graying hair will attest, I’ve seen Triple Crown winners before. American Pharaoh’s sweep marked the fourth I’ve been fortunate enough to watch. It produced the most frenzied celebration of the four, thanks to the 37-year drought and the deeply entrenched opinions that the feat had fallen into the realm of the impossible. After so many years of teases on the Triple Crown trail, the joyous response from the sold-out crowd of 90,000 was something to savor after so many years of teases during the Triple Crown chase.
The “Grand Slam” was a first, yet the Breeders’ Cup Classic was indeed reminiscent of the inaugural Marlboro Cup in 1973, when Secretariat headlined the best field these eyes have ever seen and beat three future American and Canadian Hall of Famers as well as the upstart Onion, who had toppled him in the Whitney.
Yet I can say without hesitation that what happened on the morning of Aug. 28, 2015 at Saratoga was something I had never seen in 44 years of following horse racing, never expected to see and will no doubt never see again — and it best expressed American Pharoah’s magnetism and how much he meant to the sport and its fans.
Racing surely has its share of problems and ills, but if you have any appreciation at all for the sport, to be there at Saratoga Race Course, surrounded by at least 15,000 (and there was probably more) fans at 8:30 on a radiant August morning, you could not help but remember why you embraced the sport in the first place. With the seats in the grandstand and clubhouse as filled as they would be a day later for the $1.6 million Travers, a hallowed 152-year-old racetrack was absolutely electric with people pressed together, each there to simply watch a horse gallop around a racetrack.
It was an utterly amazing scene. Minutes before American Pharoah arrived, people were lined five or six deep behind seats at the finish line, trying to catch a glimpse of the track. In clubhouse boxes, where you would normally see some of the nation’s most prominent business leaders, there were casually dressed parents and their young children, eyes affixed to the racetrack, all awaiting American Pharoah’s arrival.
The large crowds that turned out for each appearance this year by owner Ahmed Zayat’s 3-year-old star spoke volumes about his charisma. Yet that bond between a horse and its fans was taken to an unprecedented level when, at a time when they would normally be sleeping or heading off to work, droves of fans streamed into Saratoga just to watch American Pharoah gallop for about two and a half minutes.
As the Triple Crown winner circled the track, the crowd cheered as lustily as they would for races later in the day at the Spa and a legion of mobile devices recorded the colt’s every fluid moment.
And then, when the champion colt left the track and walked back to his barn, the crowd happily departed, each knowing they could now say they had actually seen American Pharoah.
It was unforgettable. Not just for me, but for anyone who had a long association with the sport. There was nothing else that could compare to it.
“What happened was something I had never seen in my 30 years in racing,” Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association’s Senior Vice President for Racing Operations said about the turnout for American Pharoah’s gallop. “That in and of itself is amazing.”
Even some of NYRA’s seasoned personalities marveled at what they saw.
“I think more people wanted to see American Pharoah than Secretariat,” said Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., who dominated New York racing for decades before retiring in 1992. “After 37 years, they wanted to see what a Triple Crown winner looks like. There were more people here on [a Friday morning at Saratoga] to see American Pharoah than you’ll see on any day at Aqueduct or Belmont Park.”
Ironically, American Pharoah suffered his lone loss in three post-Triple Crown races when he finished second in the Travers and his connections believed the excitement of the Friday gallop drained the homebred colt and opened the door for the following day’s loss. Nevertheless, a day after the Travers, Bob Baffert, American Pharoah’s Hall of Fame trainer, said he was “overwhelmed” by what he had seen on that Friday morning. “It was pretty cool to see,” he added. “It’s amazing what [American Pharoah has] done for racing. I know my son Bode will remember that. It was something special.”
It takes a race to make a champion, yet to fully comprehend what happened to the sport of Thoroughbred racing during the last six months, you only needed a Friday morning gallop at Saratoga.
It vividly told the story of American Pharoah, a horse who now belongs to history and left behind a legacy as robust as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
And now, racing will indeed go on without him. Yet what he left behind during the last six months will not be forgotten anytime soon. After 37 years, there are finally some new memories to attach to a Triple Crown winner – from what happened both in a few treasured afternoons and on a glorious Friday morning at Saratoga.