A little over one week ago, American Pharoah (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) became the 14th horse since Affirmed to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Next Sunday, it figures to become the 13th of these horses to compete for a Triple Crown, horse racing’s most prestigious and, increasingly, most elusive honor.
Superstitious fans might be turned back by the unfortunate numerical coincidence that will mark Pharoah’s bid. It certainly does not require such simple-minded beliefs, however, to bet against the three-year-old’s odds. Thirteen horses have run the infamous Belmont Stakes since the last Triple Crown was won by Affirmed in 1976, an undefeated 26-0 in the first two legs of the series. Thirteen have fared no better than second.
Explanations have abounded for how this almost inconceivable trend came about. Some of them are more technical, like the idea that today’s expensively-trained horses are increasingly specializing in shorter-distance courses like the Derby and the Preakness and not the 1.5-mile Belmont. Or perhaps it’s the fact that American racehorses are just slower than they used to be. Others theories point to the qualitative, like the idea that the compounding pressure of winning the third leg of the event is simply getting to the jockeys more than it did when there were so many Triple Crown winners that the event seemed to be losing its novelty.
Even when taken together, however, it seems hard for me to imagine that these excuses have produced what I think must be the most interesting and alarming phenomenon in modern-day sporting.
In the years since the last Triple Crown victory, we have witnessed an era of almost unparalleled athletic success. The number of sports that have had an era-defining athlete since Affirmed took care of business has been simply astonishing. Hockey had Wayne Gretzky. Basketball had Michael Jordan. Swimming had Michael Phelps. Heck, even sailing has Ben Ainslie. The list goes on and on, littered with many more incredible storylines that will forever fill the annals of history of their respective games.
Horse racing, however, has not been blessed with such a figure. The sport has been littered with wonderful setups and perfect situations, seemingly just begging to be told and retold until the end of time. But thus far, all these great sagas have simply been swallowed down the Belmont Stretch.
There was Charismatic, the comeback kid, whose incredible potential had led to just a single major win before he swept the Derby and the Preakness only to break his leg in the final furlong of the Belmont. There was I’ll Have Another, the star finisher, who seemed to perpetually manage to leap into the lead just before the race ended before he was scratched due to injury just over a day before his final trial. Then there was last year’s contender and my personal favorite, the ever-lovable California Chrome. A commoner who lacked the blood of horse racing royalty, Chrome unfortunately just didn’t have enough fight left in him after his foot was trampled coming out of the starting stall.
Any of these horses would have provided the world with a perfect way to see out the Triple Crown drought. Yet, for some reason or another, it just wasn’t meant to be, and year after year passed without the next Secretariat or Man o’ War rising above the competition.
American Pharoah has no great story, at least not yet. His trainer, Bob Baffert, is no stranger to success in the first legs of the Triple Crown, but has just one win in the Belmont compared to four in the shorter Derby and six in the even shorter Preakness. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, has ridden two Crown contenders before in the Belmont and has never even finished in the money. Pharoah in some sense has faced the easy path into the tournament, winning an iteration of the Preakness in which many of the other horses quite literally seemed to get stuck in the mud. About the best thing said in Pharoah’s favor is that perhaps the competition will be weak, with Derby runner-up Firing Line a question mark and bronze-medalist Dortmund out for the Belmont Stakes.
But what I think horse racing needs for the Triple Crown to be won again, however, is not an Pulitzer-quality emotional tale but a simply wonderful athlete. Pharoah, many would have you think, is facing off less against other horses and more against the curse of history, marred by its “almosts” and “not quites.” The horse can’t compete with the hype and allure leading up to this event. However, where I think it can, and will, compete is down the racecourse stretch. The odds will catch up to the Belmont and a Triple Crown favorite will finally come away with a victory.
Maybe the improvement of modern training techniques or influx of owner’s money into making the sport more competitive has changed it forever. Personally, I simply do not think that can be true. Instead, it’s merely as if the right combination of talents has been lost in time, obscured the moment Spectacular Bid first faded down the stretch one year after Affirmed claimed its trophy.
We won’t know for certain about this rediscovery until it is shown to us in Elgin. But someone will, and probably has, rediscovered it. It will, of course, take fortuitous circumstances on race day, with a well-conditioned track and clean breaks from the start. It will take a dedicated jockey, not outmatched by the occasion, that knows both the track and his horse like the back of his hand. Above all, however, it will take a horse that is both naturally gifted and mentally strong – a horse that is practically godlike in its style and execution.
It just might take an American Pharoah.
Andrew Mather promises that he actually does know how the word “pharaoh” is spelled. Really. Tell him that spelling is a prerequisite for coming to Stanford at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.