“To see this horse finally do something—for a while I was starting to think maybe it’s never going to happen. It’s changed, it’s too tough—maybe it’s the breed. It’s not the breed. You just have to wait for these superior horses to come around. They don’t come around that often.” – Bob Baffert, trainer of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
When Affirmed hit the wire in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, my then twelve-year-old eyes had already seen three Triple Crown winners. Much like the Minnesota Vikings going to the Super Bowl, this was obviously something that happened all the time. I don’t remember anything about those races other than wondering why people didn’t simply bet on the favorite, because the favorite always won.
The innocent mind of a child…
This year’s Triple Crown season was eerily similar to the “good old days” of the dominant 70’s. From February through April in the Road to Kentucky contest, favorites were winning the Kentucky Derby prep races nearly every week. American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Dortmund, Firing Line, Frosted, Materiality and Upstart had the horse racing community excited that this year’s crop was strong, and legitimate Kentucky Derby contenders were arriving at Churchill Downs from every region of the country.
American Pharoah’s victory in the Kentucky Derby was decisive but not dominant. There was still reasonable doubt, with legitimate excuses attached to other runners’ misfortunes. Dortmund had set a pressured pace along a dead rail, Firing Line had failed to switch leads in the stretch, Frosted was moving fastest late while running wide, and Materiality had sliced through traffic along the inside after missing the break. Any of these contenders could, in theory, turn the tables on American Pharoah under the right circumstance.
Questions. Doubt. Skepticism.
Dortmund and Firing Line returned to take on American Pharoah in the Preakness Stakes, while Frosted and Materiality waited in New York. The skies opened before the race, and American Pharoah splashed to a Preakness victory in front-running fashion, leaving Dortmund, Firing Line and the rest far behind.
This time it was dominant.
The crush of failed Triple Crown attempts lingered as the Belmont Stakes drew near. No longer was it a question of who the best horse was, but contrarians still laid out persuasive cases for Frosted or Materiality, citing history and the Triple Crown barrier as being too elusive for this generation of thoroughbred.
American Pharoah would have none of it.
He ran himself right into history, widening his advantage at every call. When Frosted moved to him at the top of the stretch, American Pharoah simply stepped away. The challenge of the final two furlongs was a mirage. The track, the distance, the competition, the Triple Crown grind, all were rendered meaningless by the efficient and powerful stride of an elite thoroughbred.
The official chart call from BRISnet:
AMERICAN PHAROAH broke on top after coming away in good order, quickly shook free, was glided over to the rail before reaching the beginning of the clubhouse turn, rated kindly setting the splits on a loosely-contested lead, began to edge away from the closest pursuers approaching the quarter pole, settled into the upper stretch and was given his cue, responded and drew well clear to cap off the first Triple Crown in thirty seven years.
Greatness turns the complex into the simple. Enjoy the moment.