January 24, 2016

American Phar-whoah! 12th Triple Crown Champion

American Pharoah (great-grandson of Unbridled) closed out his successful Triple Crown bid in flashy style, running seven opponents off their feet throughout the 12 furlong “Test of Champions.” While Pharoah’s clocking was impressive enough in its own right being the 6th fastest Belmont at 2:26.65 in the race’s illustrious history (147th renewal, 6 more than the Kentucky Derby), the stat garnering attention is that he ran his last quarter mile FASTER than Secretariat’s final two furlong time (24.32 seconds vs 25 seconds). Astonishing feat considering how widely Big Red separated himself from his few peers in that 1973 stretch run. In fact, each quarter mile was clocked at a consistent pace between 24 1/5 and 24 4/5 seconds and had Pharoah been pushed may have been faster.

However, my message today will not be trying to rank American Pharoah against the all-time greats. His last few races this fall and the months that follow will give us ample time to dissect his overall record when the dust settles. I’d like to celebrate how this special yet imperfect horse, rider, trainer and owner all converged to give our thrilling sport the boost it so desperately needs at exactly the right time.

American Pharoah is not an undefeated Triple Crown champion, like Seattle Slew. Nor did he set track records every time he graced the track, like Secretariat. He threw in a clunker in his lifetime debut race at Del Mar finishing a spent fifth place, as most horses do experiencing a race for the first time. But the silver fox, Bob Baffert, never lost the extreme confidence he had in this horse from the beginning. He wheeled him back in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and obviously was not favored that day (future trivia question: Who is the only horse to be favored over American Pharoah?  Answer: Skyway) but won by 5 widening lengths in his now customary front running fashion.

How about the job Bob Baffert has done with this horse, including rider change, earplugs and paddock schooling, nursing him through a deep hoof bruise injury that prevented a Breeders’ Cup start? And perhaps most importantly mapping out the pre-Derby race schedule and not being afraid to use the Arkansas Derby as final prep even though it’s the last of the marquee prep races to stay at three weeks prior to Kentucky Derby. Perhaps the reason we’ve had such a long Triple Crown drought is due to “new wave” trainers changing preparations going into the grueling Classic series and handling their horses with kid gloves, rather than running them MORE to toughen them up (I’ll save this fight for another day!). But certainly Baffert hasn’t been a poster boy for racing throughout his career either, with his once cocky attitude and even recent string of mysterious horse deaths in his California stable (later determined by autopsies to be rat poison entering food supply). But to see his humble interviews now with his family by his side and crying when thinking of his parents truly makes me want the best for this man, whom I have come to respect over time.

Like any politician entering an election year (just ask Hillary, whose husband Bill was in attendance at Belmont to witness history), breeder and owner Ahmed Zayat had some skeletons exposed over recent weeks from years past of bankruptcy filings (with 100% debts since paid) after his early foray into thoroughbred ownership and slow-pay to vendors and bookies (yes, gambling!). While I can’t speak to his business practices, I can tell you firsthand how genuine and humble he has been through his success with American Phaorah (and Mr. Z and El Kabeir for that matter). Back in March on their first trip to Oaklawn Park on a dreadful rainy day for the Rebel Stakes, I stopped Ahmed and Justin as they made their way to the owners stand to watch Pharoah’s front-running splashing victory (similar to his later Preakness triumph). I thanked them for bringing their juvenile Champion to Oaklawn and they shook my hand and told me how sincerely pleased they were to be here and everyone had been so kind to them. This on the worst weather day imaginable! They have constantly deflected praise to Baffert and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes for being with the horse every day. As the breeder, it would have been so easy for Mr. Zayat to come up with some elaborate story about the mating decision to give himself the credit, but he refused this limelight (are you paying attention dumb asses? Still think no horse will EVER win the Triple Crown with these “G_D_ cowards taking the cheaters way out?”).

That brings us to Victor Espinoza, the masterful jockey who sees Pharoah only on race day and admittedly without studying film or thinking about things too much.  He simply climbs aboard the glistening bay, feels his charge’s neck swell with eagerness and uses his judgment however the race unfolds.  He usually guides Pharoah to the lead but deftly knows how to shut off a few cylinders before firing them back on in the stretch.  What a rhythm he has found with this 1,187 pound bob-tailed bay colt whose stride has recently been claimed by physicists to be longer than that of Secretariat (to which Penny Chennery called BS!). Victor has been subject to the freshest of distractions, being on the cover of the New York Post with a teenage blonde when he’s supposed to be happily engaged to a lady he’s not noodling in the photos. How does he deal with this stress/distraction?  No, he’s not getting attacked by a scorn woman with a golf club in his Escalade (errr, Ferrari). Rather, he shows up at a nearby distinguished Jewish prayer site Ohel Chabad Lubavitz two days before the Belmont. While there, he lit a candle and wrote a prayer in Spanish before walking backwards from the gravesite as a sign of respect, following tradition.  Only 48 hours later, Materiality, then Mubtaahij, then Keen Ice, then Frosted would also be going backwards at the top of the Big Sandy stretch after taking turns making runs at the Champ. Perhaps the spirit of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson had more to do with breaking this curse than anyone knows.

And finally, that moment when American Pharoah crossed the wire first by nearly six widening lengths to a worthy adversary in Frosted, and eight ahead of also-rans Keen Ice and Mubtaahij to a “thundering roar” as Baffert and others would describe the scene. I happened to be standing next to a lady from Ft. Worth at a very tactical 2nd row spot above the winners circle enclosure, just past the finish line. She is also a horse lover but not as into handicapping a race so I was giving her and another group behind me brief commentary every time I saw the Longines clock with split times pop up (hey, they gave me a nice cap so the least I can do is help them sell a thousand dollar watch!). With each successive quarter going in :24 and change I grew increasingly animated with my description. It started with “that’s good, he’s moving easy” then “he’s rocking them to sleep -- leave him alone Johnny (aboard Materiality)” but at the halfway point I’m literally looking directly across the track and see Pharoah’s mouth open, like he’s laughing at the other horses. (A later video confirmed that it wasn’t the tongue tie I saw, but literally Pharoah’s teeth – rare to see a horse’s mouth open during a race.) His front legs looked as if he was walking on air and was ready to do more, but Victor kept him in perfect fluidity. I’ve only seen this on one other occasion in my life and that was when Karen’s Tom broke the 6 furlong track record at Oaklawn Park over 25 years ago. On the giant sweeping turn, it was hard to tell if others were closing or losing ground, but when track announcer Larry Colmus’ voice began escalating we all knew that he was pulling away and was going to win the race. I will defer to Mike Vaccaro’s wonderful article in Sunday’s New York Post on how the final moment crystallized…

“the scene everywhere at Belmont Park was one you’ll remember for a lifetime: Strangers slapping hands. Strangers exchanging hugs. Fans on every level of the grandstand exiting their seats, taking to the corridors, running wildly, as if ­inspired by what they’d seen, emptying their lungs with glee, with joy, with bliss. Some of them weeping, too.” (ok, I admit it)

“If somehow the Yankees could win the World Series, the Giants the Super Bowl and the Knicks the NBA championship at the same exact time, in the same exact place — well, that’s what it sounded like. If you were there, you’ll remember that sound forever. You’ll remember what you saw. Forever. History as it happened.”

Whether I see another Triple Crown happen in 2016 or 2046 or never, this will be a wonderful moment. American Pharoah will be the horse we measure all horses against in the future and that is a very high bar. American Pharoah is horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown Champion.

Eric Kordsmeier - Dallas, TX

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