Loss Can't Derail Pharoah Phenomenon

The defeat hit like a ton of bricks. It was a crushing blow to the thousands who journeyed to Saratoga and those watching on TV. But the bottom line is that American Pharoah should not be blamed for this loss. He ran his heart out, having to withstand pressure for a long way from a very talented colt in Frosted. That is all you can ask of any horse, even the great ones. Few horses, if any, can withstand a :23 flat third quarter and :23 3/5 fourth quarter in a 1 1/4-mile race, especially after three cross-country trips in four weeks. He and Frosted gutted each other and crawled home. Simply put, American Pharoah attempted something that was very difficult to pull off under the circumstances and he lost. It happens. It’s horseracing.

For the past week and a half I have expressed my concerns about American Pharoah running in the Travers, not only in regard to the good possibility of him getting beat, but the ramifications this testing mile and a quarter race and all the traveling will have when it comes time for him to be in absolute peak condition for his big test in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But as you will read, this is not about second-guessing or what was right or wrong.

In my final column, titled “High Anxiety,” I said, being the glass-half-empty person I am, this race “scared the heck out of me,” mentioning all the obstacles I felt he had to overcome and what a great accomplishment it would be if he won. Yes, I was anxious. I’d been there before.

But two days before the race, I received some of the most profound words I’d ever read from a racing fan. Shara Goldman Eltringham actually gave me a new perspective on the deification of racehorses, even having witnessed the Zenyatta craze, and simply enjoying the phenomenon that is American Pharoah. It was an example of positive thinking I had never really experienced before, even after 47 years.

She wrote: “Since Friday, my grandfather passed away, I took my dog to the ER vet, my 11-year-old daughter to the ER with a broken collarbone, and I just found out my mother is now in the ER and is being admitted to the hospital. My husband lost his job six weeks ago. I have plenty to be anxious about. But watching American Pharoah run is not one of them. It's a horse race. We scraped up enough cash for two general admission tickets and gas money and are driving five hours from central Pennsylvania just to get a glimpse of him. Win or lose, I plan on simply basking in the greatness that is American Pharoah.”

After reading that, I have to admit I wasn’t anxious anymore, because Shara’s words made me realize it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things whether he won the Travers or not, or even whether he wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That is for the history books. I know now that my words of concern were mere folly, because American Pharoah’s legacy is far greater than the races he wins or loses. He has embedded himself firmly into the hearts and souls of people all over the country, and around the world, as we saw recently with the journey of Bronwen Healy, who came all the way from Australia after battling cancer just to see American Pharoah and photograph him.

Despite Thoroughbred racing’s sometimes turbulent forces, people willingly allow themselves to get sucked into its vortex and release passions they never knew existed, such as the idolatry and love of a racehorse, with varying degrees of zeal. But horses who can affect people in such a manner come around very rarely, and when they do it is something to behold, especially when their owner and trainer share them with the public to the extent Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert have with American Pharoah.

It’s great fun to root for a horse and follow his or her career and compile statistics. But once you invest your heart and soul into something, especially something as pure as a Thoroughbred racehorse and one with the transcendent aura that seemingly emanates from American Pharoah, it becomes a part of your very being, and no defeat is ever going to remove it. I thought I learned that following Zenyatta’s only defeat, but Shara pounded it into my brain. People worshipped Zenyatta, with personal stories that ventured into the ethereal, but not on the national and worldwide scale that they worship American Pharoah, mainly because he delivered them the Holy Grail that they had sought and coveted so strongly for nearly four decades. He had finally completed the unfinished masterpiece.

I thought back to the very first race I ever covered for the Thoroughbred Times, the 1986 Haskell Invitational, which came up a sea of slop after a late afternoon deluge. I had spent the entire afternoon interviewing the grooms of the horses in the race and had become close to the horses themselves, spending a good deal of time with them. Therefore, I was upset that the track had come up sloppy and felt badly for everybody, including the horses. Up in the press box I went over to Joe Hirsch and said, “Joe, it’s a shame about the track.” Joe, who had seen just about everything in racing after 40 years in the business, slowly turned his head and looked up at me with a blank stare, and in that deep professorial voice, filled with wisdom, replied, “Steve, it was a shame about Marie Antoinette.” How he came up with such a bizarre response without hesitation amazed me, but I never again complained about a sloppy track, even when I was tempted to.

That’s what is so wonderful about racing. You can learn from someone like Joe Hirsch or from a 45-year-old mental health nurse, who calls herself, “Just an ‘everyman.’” After reading Shara’s words, I couldn’t help but think of Shakespeare’s famous line from Hamlet: “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yes, human knowledge indeed has its limits and there is little even the most educated people can explain, and that includes statistics and history and where a horse truly fits in the annals of the sport. Can we really philosophize where American Pharoah fits in the realm of great horses or is it more important to know where he fits in the hearts of people like Shara and how he was able to bring such joy and hope and positive thinking to her after so many trying events in her life? 

Yes, American Pharoah was defeated, but that is just the final chapter of the Travers, not the entire text. The Travers was also about the dozens of photos posted of American Pharoah’s plane landing, taxiing, and taking off from Lexington; landing and taxiing in Albany, and his van making its way over the Mohawk River bridge heading to Saratoga. Never have a plane and a van, without its passenger even shown, been filmed and photographed by so many.

And it was also his arrival, and the walking and bathing, with a throng of onlookers gathered at the barn, and the amazing 15,000-strong crowd that turned out, jamming the apron and grandstand, just to see him gallop the morning before the race and cheer him on down the stretch. There is no doubt this is the most photographed horse in racing history. Those scenes typified just some of the inexplicable facets of American Pharoah’s allure that go beyond winning and losing. Once you capture the human spirit, there are no more ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs,’ just the perpetuation, on a massive scale, of the bond that has existed between people and horses for thousands of years.  

Yes, I realize I may be delving too deep into the human psyche in trying to understand something as simple as how people feel about a racehorse and how a racehorse can affect us, even one that had just lost a race. But with Shara’s words still fresh in my mind and the Travers having just been run, this just doesn’t seem like the time to rationalize on why he lost. He has ventured into places far beyond that, and in the long run, that is how he will be remembered by all those who poured so much emotion into one extraordinary racehorse.

For Shara, it will be a long and disappointing drive back to Pennsylvania. But what she’ll remember most is the thrill and excitement of the drive there and the anticipation of seeing a very special horse who helped her, for a brief time, forget her troubles. And you can be sure there are many others like Shara who embrace a racehorse like American Pharoah and revel in the cathartic experience he can provide. That alone is quite a legacy.   

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