BY JIM WELLS
Their names have an ephemeral, nearly spiritual quality to them, enshrined for equine eternity in the historic texts of their sport: War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation…
Their sacred nature is predicated upon the short time they occupy in the public mind _ three races in five weeks, and then relegated to the archives of the sport, immortals who flashed upon the collective public imagination and then retired to the breeding shed. They are here and then they are gone, cobwebs of the mind.
There have been 11 of them, Triple Crown winners, starting in 1919 with Sir Barton and then 11 years later Gallant Fox, followed five years later by Omaha and seven years later by War Admiral. It was another four years to Whirlaway, and then another two to Count Fleet. Assault came five years later and Citation two years after that. And then it was an unbearable 25 years until Secretariat who was followed a mere four years hence by Seattle Slew and the very next year, 1978, by Affirmed.
Now it has been 37 years, a length of time that tests the boundaries of belief and stretches the confines of hope. No one can believe in Santa Claus for this length of time and still function as a normal, productive individual.
American Pharoah will try to change that today when he becomes the 14th horse to make such an attempt since Affirmed. The horse with the misspelled name will try to become a horse for the ages, to live up to the connotations of a name that conjures images of immortality.
Can he do it?
“I hope so. I’d love to see one (Triple Crown winner),’’ said Canterbury Park’s leading rider Dean Butler. “It would be great for the sport. Something we need. ‘’
Canterbury Park Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens, traveling this summer throughout the American West in a motor home, stopped in Boise, Idaho, to visit his parents and will watch the race there.
“I think he’s going to go to the lead, lope around the track and win by many. That’s my prediction,’’ Stevens said.
Horseman Jack Walsh is of a similar mind. “I really hope so,’’ he said. “This is a nice horse with a wonderful long , smooth stride. It would be good for racing, so let’s hope it happens.’’
There are doubters, too.
Paul Allen, the voice of Canterbury, doesn’t think it will happen. He doesn’t think horses are made of what they once were and are not up to the five-week test of three races at three distances.
Canterbury paddock analyst Angela Hermann disagrees.
“They’re running out of ways to beat him,’’ she said, “and I think he’s one of the most formidable Preakness and Derby winners I’ve seen.’’
Canterbury media relations director Jeff Maday is not so confident.
“I think he’s going to get caught,’’ Maday said. “I have a feeling. ‘’ Part of that analysis, part of that feeling, is based on past disappointment. “I’m done hoping,’’ Maday said. “Oh, it’s going to be fun to watch, but there’s no speed and if Materiality and he hook up somebody will come get them.’’
Ry Eikleberry, the defending riding champ at Canterbury, is full of confidence by comparison. “I really liked his last start,’’ he said. “It looks like he can handle any surface.’’
Jockey agent Richard Grunder is confident as well.
“I think he will (win),’’ Grunder said. “He has that tactical speed and has been training really well, super.’’
Ditto, Tom Metzen, president of the local HBPA. “I think he will. I hope he does,’’ he said.
So, hope endures despite the disappointment. “There is a different feel to this one (experience),’’ said Eric Halstrom, vice president of racing operations.
Indeed there is, particularly after American Pharoah’s dominant win in the Preakness Stakes.
Grunder sized it up succinctly:
“I think he’s too much horse,’’ he said.
So, reserve a niche in the pantheon of the immortals, a place to set a bust of one more horse for the ages.
American Pharoah? His name commands it.