Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Arkansas Derby Winners
American Pharoah after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Keeneland. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire unless noted)
I think we can all agree that American Pharoah has done great things for the sport of horse racing. His successes have taken him on a journey of brilliance, and we have been lucky enough to tag along.
It’s not necessary to list once again all that he has accomplished. We’ve heard him called the “first Triple Crown winner in 37 years” more times than we care to count. In fact, we’ve heard it said so often that we’ve become almost numb to the fact, regardless of how true the statement is. And that numbness is something we should try our hardest to avoid.
After American Pharoah’s easy success in the William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes, I wrote here about whether or not he could yet be called “great.” At that point, he had done everything asked of him, achieving the historic Triple Crown sweep and then a runaway win in his next race. And yet, many felt that he still did not qualify as great. Critics wanted to see what else he could do ... to see how well he would handle the challenges still to come.
AMERICAN PHAROAH AT THE HASKELL
Photo courtesy of Acacia Courtney
And then, he lost.
American Pharoah’s second-place finish in the Travers Stakes, however valiant his effort might have been after a rigorous travel and workout schedule followed by a less-than-ideal trip in the race, was heartbreaking.
The spell was broken. The undefeatable champion had, in fact, been defeated. Pressed early by Frosted, American Pharoah’s characteristic early speed failed to carry him through as Keen Ice charged past him in the stretch. The feeling of deflation that washed over Saratoga following the race shows how much American Pharoah had truly managed to capture the hearts and the minds of his followers.
Following the Travers, American Pharoah was shipped back to California and the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic became the sole focus. He and his connections stepped out of the limelight slightly, as we held our breath and waited to see if he could redeem himself.
We were treated to other impressive performances and heartwarming stories, headlined by Beholder winning the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes against the boys. The Classic was set to be the most exciting race of our time – Liam’s Map out in front, American Pharoah and Beholder fighting it out, Honor Code charging late from far behind.
However, scratches and race changes altered the planned course of the race. That excitement we had been promised with a full, diverse cast of racing's elite horses would not be delivered, and that is the problem. While thinking about what might have been, we make it harder to appreciate what is.
I am one of the fortunate few who has had the privilege of seeing American Pharoah run in person in six of his 2015 races: the three Triple Crown races followed by the Haskell, the Travers and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I feel, as many do, that I have some sort of relationship with American Pharoah. I’ve written about him, analyzed his abilities, interviewed his connections on HRRN, and I have watched him race, always in awe.
While it’s my job to look at him a bit critically and to make sure my emotions don’t get in the way, I’ve also tried to enjoy him. That balance is difficult to attain, but it’s important. We didn’t know when a horse like American Pharoah would appear, achieving the impossible and giving us what we had longed to see for so long. And we don’t know when we will get another like him.
AMERICAN PHAROAH WINS THE CLASSIC
This leaves the door open for the question: now what?
American Pharoah, the “hero” of horse racing, has moved into his new digs at Ashford Stud, ready to start his new life as a stallion. We look forward to watching his babies on the racetrack, but that won’t be for a while yet. In a sport that so desperately needed something to rally behind, are we ready to branch out on our own now that “that something” is retired?
However, there is good news for us racing fans, and for all the fledgling fans that have been hooked by Pharoah mania, “hail the tail,” Pharoahtoga, the Pharoah Phan Phestival or whatever marketing phrase floats your boat. That good news is that we still have an unlimited amount of stories yet to be tapped into.
Human beings respond to narratives. We want the emotions, the struggle to overcome adversity, the elation at the pinnacle of success. Talking to people at Breeders’ Cup, I was asked how we get more young fans interested in racing. My response was that it’s not just the fashion, not just the parties (although those things are fun and great), but that it’s the stories that will grab, and hold, our interest and attention.
We all have a memory of the first race we ever saw, the first ticket we ever cashed, the first moment we looked at the track and said, “wow.”
Now that a few days have passed since the Breeders’ Cup, I look back at the incredible year racing has had. We all have American Pharoah to thank for the much-needed shot of adrenaline, whether or not you have consented to call him “great.” Arguing about him being “better” than Ghostzapper or Secretariat goes back to my earlier point. Ever see the photo of a group of people watching the Pope, phones up in the air in front of their faces, while one older woman simply watches, and enjoys the moment?
this is my new favorite photo of all time pic.twitter.com/v8Qs6TeXZf
— Wayne Dahlberg (@waynedahlberg) September 26, 2015
We’ve been lucky to have American Pharoah in our lifetime, to witness his success. Now that he’s retired, it doesn’t mean we have nothing exciting left to support in racing. Additionally, looking at the next crop of 2-year-olds doesn’t mean we are diminishing or forgetting about anything that American Pharoah has accomplished. The progression is natural. Look towardthe future, reflect on the past and, above all, enjoy the present.
And thank you, American Pharoah, for taking us along on a wild ride.