There is one final moment on the American Pharoah post Triple Crown tour that needs to be mentioned; this time to demonstrate how today’s sights, sounds, and actions can reflect the changing times.
We have all heard the reference to silence being deafening, and that was the case for one person prior to the William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I).
When the horses were finished saddling and headed to the walking ring, George Bernet, former writer, copy editor, and editor of the Daily Racing Form, who helps out in the publicity office on Haskell day, decided to come out on the porch of the administration building adjacent to the paddock to see American Pharoah and the other Haskell horses in the flesh. Standing next to him was John Heims, head of communications for Monmouth.
When American Pharoah entered the walking ring after being saddled, Bernet was shocked, not at what heard from the throng surrounding the paddock, but what he didn’t hear.
“American Pharoah went around twice with Jimmy Barnes leading, and I was utterly amazed at the silence that accompanied his rounds,” Bernet said. “No applause, no shouting, no cheering. I said to John Heims, ‘That’s weird.’
“He just directed my attention to the crowd standing 10-deep around the ring – ‘Take a close look,’ he said. I looked, and I saw why the silence. Every one of the 1,000 or so around the ring had a camera, cell phone, tablet or some other device and were cranking out video or taking photos. They had no hands to clap with, since both were firmly on their devices, and they were so intent on shooting the video, they never made a sound.
“It was remarkable -- and only in this modern age. In the old days they’d have been hootin’ and hollerin’ and clapping. The one picture I wanted someone to take probably never got taken. I looked up at the back of the grandstand, with its 30 or more windows facing the backyard. In every window, there were dozens of people leaning out and -- once again -- shooting video. I know I've never seen anything like that at Monmouth.”
Perhaps those final words by Bernet best define the American Pharoah phenomenon – “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Yes, in the past few years, we have felt the grandstands of Santa Anita Park, Saratoga Race Course, and Belmont Park shake from the deafening roar of the crowd following victories by Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I), and American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Moments like that leave an indelible impression for years to come.
But equally as special can be the more subdued moments like the one experienced by Bernet, because they go against the natural order of things and make you think, as well as feel, about what you are witnessing.
As for all the people around the Monmouth paddock and those at Saratoga, their arms held high over their head, shooting American Pharoah in one form or another for Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or Periscope, they are the new recorders of history. A memorable moment and experience such as this can now be shared with friends, family, and the general public within minutes, sometimes seconds, of it actually happening. And, of course, these images are for posterity. They are telling the world, “I was there … this is what you missed … this is what you can now share…this is witnessing the experience that is American Pharoah without being there. It is for the present and the future.
That is why American Pharoah has forged new frontiers when it comes to equine heroes. Yes, America worshipped Secretariat on a nationwide scale, and Rachel Alexandra and especially Zenyatta had their fervent supporters. But for the first time in the history of the sport, racing fans have come to know their hero on an almost intimate level, even those who have never seen him in the flesh. They know his personality, his habits, how he’s looking on a virtually day-to-day basis. They see who’s been visiting him at his barn, whether it’s small children, TV news reporters, an elderly, wheelchair-bound noted veterinarian, or movie stars like Julia Roberts. They see Ahmed Zayat lying next to him, both sprawled out in the stall, like a person in bed with his dog. They see him being hugged, pet, kissed, and fed carrots, whether through photographs or video. And they see him apparently enjoying all the attention and just being around people.
They see the Zayat and Baffert families interact with him and are made aware of Ahmed Zayat’s immediate thoughts and feelings through Twitter. We can see the pride on his face and the faces of his family as they spend special moments with the horse they bred and raised and watched become part of racing lore.
These are all moments that go far beyond the cheering. These are the moments that bring us face to face with our hero and allow us to get to know the very fabric of who he or she is – not through the written reports of professional writers or a smattering of professional photographs, as in the past, but as an eyewitness.
We saw more photographs and video on social media of American Pharoah the morning after he lost than we saw years ago of most great horses after a victory. I could even add the word “combined” to that statement if I so desired. That is the world in which we now live, and one of the main reasons why we become, in some ways, even more attached to these horses after they lose and defend them to the hilt, to use an old idiom.
That certainly was the case following Zenyatta’s only defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and even Smarty Jones’ agonizing loss in the Belmont Stakes. Social media has brought a personal element that really didn’t exist in years past. I loved Damascus and Dr. Fager and Arts and Letters and Gallant Bloom back in the ‘60s, but I never had that personal attachment to them that fans have with American Pharoah.
So, now we ponder American Pharoah’s future and what is best for the horse, his reputation, and his racing legacy.
The Triple Crown and cross-country tour is over…for now at least. In experiencing the Amercan Pharoah phenomenon, I have heard the sounds of deafening cheers, while my friend George has heard the almost eerie “sounds of silence.” I wonder which truly is louder.