Back Hangin'

Well, so much for Thomas Wolfe. No, I'm not returning home, but as Emerson said, "The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it."

And I didn't find out the number of friends who frequented my house at until I left.

When I resigned from the Blood-Horse, I had no idea what my plans would be. All I knew was that it was something I had to do and that I would venture into some sort of semi-retirement, doing freelance work. I do know that I felt terrible for breaking up what I felt had become a close-knit family. But it was time to move on and attempt to make writing feel more like a hobby again, as it did for so long beginning back in the mid 1970s.

I was overwhelmed to see the response on Facebook, e-mail, and on the Blood-Horse story of my resignation, and was extremely moved by everyone's heartfelt comments and their outpouring of love and good wishes. I was truly humbled by it all.

I want to say that those comments have played an instrumental part in me accepting the Blood-Horse's offer to have me return on a freelance basis to continue just my "Hangin With Haskin" blog and "Derby Dozen," and to preserve the archives of the existing columns. This will allow me to continue with the two features I enjoyed doing and focus most of my attention on them.

I have other freelance projects in the works as well, but the majority of my efforts will be put into these two features, and I am happy they will be returning home where they have been for so many years and where everyone is comfortable reading them and interacting. So, all I can say is thank you for all your support and encouragement.

Although the decision to leave was made before the Belmont Stakes, and had been on my mind for a while, I could not have dreamed of writing my final magazine race recap on such an incredible high. I never thought I would relive the excitement and feel the electricity that was felt in 1973 when Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought, and doing so with such a titanic effort; one for the ages that will never come close to being duplicated.

American Pharoah did not appear on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated prior to the Belmont Stakes, as Secretariat did, but the aftermath of his Belmont victory, thanks to social media, sports talk shows, and cell phone videos plastered all over YouTube, surpassed even the mass hysteria that followed Secretariat's victory.

I realized writing my final recap that this historic event would never be equaled, no matter who, if anyone, sweeps the Triple Crown in the future. I knew as the words poured forth that there was a finality to it. This would be the ultimate race recap; the summit of my writing career, and what a perfect time to bid that part of my life farewell.

Even as my colleague Lenny Shulman and I hugged and jumped up and down like two giddy school boys, engulfed by a wall of noise and literally feeling the grandstand shake, my first thought was the sheer happiness I felt for all the generations after me who have persevered through so many disappointments and who wanted to experience this feeling so badly.

I could sense in those people disbelief. I could sense it in myself, having been there for all those 37 years. When you yearn for something for so long, there is that brief instance when you ask yourself if it really happened. You imagined for so long what this moment would be like, but as the years and decades passed -- 10 years...20 years...30 years...nearly 40 years - all you could do is prepare yourself for yet another heartbreaking defeat and having to leave Belmont Park dejected once again. But there is always that glimmer of hope you bring with you. And although that is what drives you and encourages you to keep coming back, you still have no way of knowing or even imagining  to what degree that hope will manifest itself into pure ecstasy and delirium. You cannot comprehend the magnitude of the event until it actually happens and you can feel it for real.

Yes, perhaps I am overstating the importance of a horse race in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps it is the result of being away from the keyboard for so long. But seeing all the frenzied reactions on YouTube and feeling all that energy generated by a single horse and the exultation that resulted from his victory, how can you not believe this was a profound moment in the lives of all those caught up in this flood of emotion. And the aftermath of the Belmont Stakes, which lingered for weeks, showed just how difficult it was for people to let go.

In the days and weeks that followed, American Pharoah, unlike previous Triple Crown winners, became a one-horse petting zoo, with visitors, including major celebrities, flocking to Bob Baffert's barn, whether at Belmont, Churchill Downs, or Santa Anita, to have their picture taken with and touch a Triple Crown winner. And they poured into Churchill Downs and Santa Anita to get a glimpse of him parading and being honored by those two tracks. No horse I have ever been around could have been subjected to what American Pharoah was subjected to and handled it with such professionalism. That is part of what makes him such a special horse and enabled him to waltz through the grueling Triple Crown while actually getting stronger with each race. He truly had become America's horse and a national celebrity.

Finally, Baffert had to "shut him down," as the colt lost 20 pounds, a good amount of it from being taken out of his stall so often and "mingling" with the public outside his barn, as they fed him carrots, took photos with him, and pet and hugged him. This had become a daily occurrence and likely disrupted his eating routine. Once he got back to being a racehorse and resumed serious training he gained the weight back.

So, now as we head into the second half of the year and begin to focus on the Breeders' Cup, racing will continue to grab headlines and flourish for as long as American Pharoah remains in training. Perhaps this phenomenon will even have a domino effect and fuel the sport after he is off to stud. Perhaps racing fans can once again embrace another phenomenon, Wise Dan, who is attempting another remarkable comeback at the age of 8.

With Thoroughbred racing, the greatest moments of euphoria are often followed by a strong kick in the gut, and since American Pharoah's Triple Crown sweep, we have been dealt with the harsh reality of California Chrome, Lady Eli, and Main Sequence. That is why we should cherish every moment that American Pharoah remains in training and stays healthy and sound.

Although expectations are sky high regarding American Pharoah's remaining starts, as he puts his lofty, almost iconic, reputation on the line, no defeat can diminish what he accomplished. They certainly didn't diminish the accomplishments or reputations of the three Triple Crown winners of the 70s as their 3-year-old campaigns came to an end. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed combined to win 18 of their 19 starts through the Belmont Stakes, but were a combined five-for-11 after the Belmont Stakes. Affirmed actually lost five aces in a row (one by disqualification) following his Jim Dandy victory. Fortunately for him and Slew, they had magnificent 4-year-old campaigns to put a stamp on their greatness.

American Pharoah, like Secretariat, won't get that chance, but Big Red's two defeats at the hands of older Allen Jerkens-trained stablemates Onion and Prove Out did not detract from his spectacular victories in the Triple Crown, nor will it detract from American Pharoah should he get beat. His place in racing's pantheon is firmly secured, especially having faced 23 more horses in the Triple Crown than Secretariat (10), Slew (2), and Affirmed (11), and having defeated 13 individual horses who won or placed in grade I stakes, far more than any of the other three.

So, as American Pharoah sets his sights on the second half of the year, while training brilliantly for his next start, the Haskell Invitational, I just want to thank everyone once again for all the beautiful and moving words and to say my column will return on a regular basis on July 30 or 31 when I'll be seeing you back in all the old familiar places.

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