Mather: Examining American Pharoah’s legacy

Nov. 4, 2015, 3:08 a.m.

Last Saturday, American Pharoah completed his racing career with a dominating win of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The victory earned Pharoah the first ever horse racing Grand Slam, and it’s not likely that it will be quickly equaled in this category given that no horse has even managed to win the first three legs of this award since 1978.

Now, the world embarks on the task of determining just how historically good Pharoah’s career was. Unfortunately for the horse, his remarkable accomplishments come amidst an unmistakable downturn in the rest of the racing world. Viewership of the sport has been in continual decline (this year somewhat excepted), and repeated controversies about rampant injury and illicit drug use have created a good deal of public outrage about the sport. On top of these scandals, most statistics show that racehorses just aren’t running as fast anymore, a fact that makes it difficult to contextualize just how spectacular the current stars of the sport can be.

For better or worse, Pharoah’s legacy will be forever connected to these trends in the racing world. The horse was very much a product of his time, and almost everything about his career is emblematic of the circumstances in the world in which he raced.

Pharoah dominated his competition by extremely impressive margins, for instance, but lacked a notable rival in many of them, as the field recorded slower times. With potentially elite opponents like Beholder and California Chrome sidelined with injuries for most of Pharoah’s career, Frosted and Keen Ice will likely be remembered as the bay’s greatest competitors. The latter member of that pair wouldn’t have even qualified to race Pharoah had a higher-ranked horse not decided to take a pass on entering the Kentucky Derby.

The horse’s track times likely suffered as a result of this dropoff, simply because he may rarely have needed to run at his full potential. Pharoah’s Kentucky Derby finish was actually the second slowest of a winner since 2005, meaning the horse failed to truly prove himself above even his recent historical predecessors. The bay did improve in some of his later races and finally succeeded in sneaking into the record books at the Belmont Stakes, but he still landed a far cry from many of the all-time greats of horse racing history, possibly because he just didn’t have to.

The current horse racing norms didn’t just affect how Pharoah raced, however­ — they also largely determined when he raced. In an effort to reduce disappointment or injury and the massive loss of stud fees that each would entail, Pharoah’s owners only started him 11 times, an extremely small sample size with which to examine his achievements.

While the move to retire Pharoah after his Triple Crown season was by no means unprecedented, his total number of finishes was five below any winner of this honor before him. Interestingly, the biggest reaction from the community about his retirement was that his owners had allowed him to race as much as he did, a testament to how easy the popular demand to see great horses take part in more races has become hard to ignore.

It’s hard to discount the accomplishments of American Pharoah based off the things that have managed to bring down the sport. I certainly believe Pharoah should be remembered for the horses he did beat and not the ones he hypothetically might have fallen to.

But as the years pass, it’s hard to determine which story will take the lead in defining the horse’s accomplishments. If Pharoah’s successors manage to increase the competitiveness of the sport or if average paces begin to quicken again, there’s a real chance that Pharoah will become a mere artifact of a lost era in horse racing.

Hopefully, the optimistic view will win out. Pharoah accomplished with style what many experts thought might never happen again, and he truly brought everyone who watched him along for a fun ride. Racing has assuredly benefited from the interest in his career, and I believe his resume should trump any other factors and give him the spot among racing’s all-time elite that he has earned. At the end of the day, American Pharoah was a truly spectacular racehorse. It was us that brought him down.


No one at The Daily knew that Andrew Mather feels perhaps just as passionately about horse racing as he does for sailing. Ask him about what other obscure sports he’s into at Andrew Mather at amather ‘at’

Andrew Mather served as a sports editor and as the Chief Operating Officer of The Daily. A devout Clippers and Iowa Hawkeyes fan from the suburbs of Los Angeles, Mather grew accustomed to watching his favorite programs snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He brought this nihilistic pessimism to The Daily, where he often felt a sense of déjà vu while covering basketball, football and golf.

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