American Pharoah: Into the Pantheon

At 2 a.m Sunday morning, America turned the clocks back an hour. Approximately eight hours earlier, the Thoroughbred racing world turned the clocks back 40, 50, 60 years, back to the Golden Era of the sport when there were Triple Crown winners who would go on to earn their place among the truly greats.

There have been many great colts and geldings to compete in this country over the past four decades who have made it to the gates of the pantheon, but simply did not achieve enough to gain entrance and mingle with the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Citation, Count Fleet, and the older greats such as the legendary Man o’War.

To today’s generations of racing fans, those names have taken on near-mystical qualities as their heroic deeds retreat deeper into the yellowing pages of the history books.

But on Halloween day, Oct. 31, 2015, with the ghosts of racing’s all-time greats looking down, American Pharoah was allowed entrance into the hallowed gates of the pantheon with his brilliant and authoritative victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It was a race he not only had to win, he had to put on a show to remember. He did both, and he did it in the heart of the bluegrass, the birthplace of the Thoroughbred. The perfect script had been completed.

But it wasn’t merely American Pharoah’s epic victories that won him a place in the hearts of people all over the world. It was a magnetic personality that drew people to him. It is safe to say he had more visitors to his various barns around the country than all the previous Triple Crown winners combined. More hands touched him. More lips were pressed against his muzzle. More arms were wrapped around his neck. More photos were taken with him. He wasn’t just a great horse, he was an icon; the purest of athletes who was revered by all those who came in contact with him or just watched him compete. Here was a sports superstar people could think of as a friend. He greeted everyone and turned no one away.

Each one of his races was an individual brushstroke that in the end formed a masterpiece; one to be admired for years to come.

If you don’t think his career was guided by the racing gods, how else do you explain all three pace horses that could have compromised his chances in the Classic – Liam’s Map, Beholder, and Smooth Roller -- all defecting from the race for one reason or another? When the racing gods are determined to see a show for the ages, a bravura performance, a farewell befitting a champion, they will go to any means to do so. But the way Pharoah ran in the Classic, with such grace and power, those measures likely weren't necessary.

And who more appropriate to guide the fortunes of this magnificent horse than Bob Baffert and the Zayat family, who shared him with the public on a national scale never seen before and had people flocking to his barns at Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park, Del Mar, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Belmont Park, Monmouth, Saratoga, and Keeneland in an unprecedented display of public adoration, with people coming from as far away as Australia just to see him. This was a rare horse who transcended not only his own sport, but sport in general.

For all those who grew up watching Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Fury or My Friend Flicka. or reading Misty of Chincoteague, or playing with My Little Pony, but whose bond with horses had become dormant as they grew up and went on to other endeavors, American Pharoah awakened those feelings and rekindled those emotions. In short, he was able to refasten that broken link to our childhood. He was fast, he was indefatigable, he could carry his speed great distances, he moved with a grace and beauty very rarely seen, and he was the sweetest horse you’ll ever be around. But most important, thanks to Bafffert and the Zayats, he was ours.

In 2015 alone, he competed at seven different racetracks and made an unprecedented 14 plane trips, logging 28,000 miles. Yet his greatest performance was his last, when he defeated the winners of two Jockey Club Gold Cups, the Belmont Stakes, Metropolitan Handicap. Whitney, Travers, Santa Anita Gold Cup, English and Irish 2,000 Guineas, St. James’s Palace Stakes, Suburban Handicap, Wood Memorial, and Pennsylvania Derby. He couldn’t say farewell any other way. The racing gods wouldn’t hear of it. They had already begun to unlock the pantheon gates.

Another sign of a truly great horse is how he bounces back from defeat. And American Pharoah proved he wasn’t perfect. But then neither was Man o’War or Secretariat or Citation or any of the chosen few. People are imperfect and they can empathize with imperfections in their heroes. They want to know they are human, even if they are horses. To see American Pharoah rebound off his one imperfect day, in which several things conspired against him, made the Classic even more emotional and more gratifying.

Ahmed Zayat said he felt it was their management of the horse that contributed mostly to his defeat in the Travers. But whether there were any wrong decisions made or not, all Zayat would be guilty of is being a sportsman, who from the beginning of American Pharoah’s journey embraced the spirit of adventure, not knowing where it would ultimately lead. O, Henry once said, “The true adventurer goes forth aimless and uncalculating to meet and greet unknown fate”

Zayat accepted the defeat with grace, and he and Baffert focused their attention on the Classic. It would either stamp American Pharoah’s true greatness and open the pantheon gates to him or it would mean closing out his career with two straight defeats that would serve as a reality check to both fans and his few detractors.

Just maybe, the Travers defeat was meant to be in order to bring a Classic victory to a higher emotional level. Maybe it had nothing to do with Zayat at all. As Somerset Maugham wrote in “Of Human Bondage, “It’s no use crying over spilt milk, because all the forces of the universe were bent on spilling it.”

All Zayat, whose life is steeped in the Jewish religion, could do on Classic day was seek divine intervention and hope this was all part of a higher plan. He clasped his hands together and said, “Please God.”

Following the defections  from the field, leaving American Pharoah as the lone speed, and after seeing how brilliantly the colt had been training and how good he was looking and feeling, Justin Zayat admitted, “All the stars are aligning well.”

Indeed they were. After being allowed to get away with an opening quarter in a hair under :24 and with only the come-from-behind Effinex giving chase, American Pharoah was able to run his opponents off their feet with  :23 2/5 and  :23 3/5 quarters and then proceeded to strike the final blow with closing quarters in :24 1/5 and :24 3/5, drawing off to a 6 1/2-length romp in a sprightly 2:00 flat.

The fairy tale would have a happy ending after all. The history book had a new completed chapter that would immediately be moved to the front pages.

For American Pharoah, it was a short van ride to his new home at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud where he will begin a new life far removed from the one on one contact with his adoring legion of fans who flocked to him just for a brief touch or kiss or just to look and marvel.  

For Bob Baffert, it would be a joyous trip back to California, but there would be a sense of sadness awaiting him. He would have to return to an empty stall that had been occupied by so much than a horse. What Baffert will miss the most was the life force that had emanated from that stall for so long. In many ways, Pharoah’s stall will remain empty for a long time.

And so the journey ends for Baffert and the Zayats and for Pharoah’s constant traveling companion, assistant Jimmy Barnes, who became more of a friend and caretaker. It was a journey of adventure, but most of all a journey of discovery, in which Baffert and the Zayats discovered themselves and the legacy they and their once-in-a-lifetime horse will leave on the sport. With a full roster of young horses coming up, how does one even begin to try to find another one like him?

“You've never in your life seen a horse run so fast! He’s all power--all beauty.” Walter Farley did not need any more words to describe The Black Stallion. Sometimes greatness is so pure and simple, nothing more is necessary. But as one can see, in the case of American Pharoah, it’s awfully hard to resist.

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