What did Sir Edmund Hillary do after he became the first person to climb Mt. Everest? What peaks are left to climb when you’ve climbed the highest in the world?
Hillary would climb 10 more peaks in the Himalayas and eventually embark on another historic quest -- journeying to the South Pole.
Jonas Salk became a national hero, admired by millions, when he achieved the ultimate success in his field and changed the course of medicine and a nation by discovering a vaccine for polio. There seemed to be no greater heights for him to climb, yet his devoted the last 10 years of his life attempting to discover a vaccine for AIDS.
These are extreme examples of men who, like Don Quixote, reached for the “unreachable star,” but were not satisfied with attaining their ultimate quest in life and would seek new worlds to conquer.
Why would they do it when they had already reached the pinnacle of their life; a pinnacle no one else had ever reached? The reason is simple. It was in their blood.
No one is comparing Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat to Hillary and Salk, who had a profound effect on history, and in Salk’s case, on mankind. But Baffert and Zayat, like those two great men, have devoted their lives to a single cause and single passion, and were able to reach the highest star in their universe. Like so many other trainers and owners, they embark on their own quests each year searching for Quixote’s “Impossible Dream,” knowing that dream is highly improbable, but not impossible. Winning the Kentucky Derby is every horseman’s dream, but deep down in their heart and soul they can’t help but seek to climb even higher – to train, own, and breed that one horse who will join the pantheon of immortals and be mentioned with a reverence reserved for very few throughout history.
Baffert and Zayat overcame many pitfalls in their respective racing careers and kept persevering in the hope that a Secretariat or a Man o’War would one day enter their lives and change it forever.
Now that their dream has been realized, what goals, what quests, what worlds are left for them to conquer? What is there left to strive for when you know you have reached emotional highs you will never reach again? Wherever they look there will be memories of American Pharoah; memories that are hard to let go. When Baffert shows up at the barn each morning now, can he be content with settling for lesser goals? When Zayat plans his matings and which horses to buy, can he muster up the same kind of enthusiasm, realizing he has already bred a legend that he knows in his heart he will never duplicate?
The answer is yes, and once again the reason is simple. It’s in their blood. Racing has to be in your blood if you’re willing get up at the crack of dawn every morning of your life and devote every waking hour to the horses in your care. It has to be in your blood if you are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars in the hope of finding one, two or a handful of horses capable of providing the thrills that will keep you pouring money into the sport every year. It has to be in your blood if you are going to subject yourself to the heartbreak and tragedy that sadly is part of the sport.
Because it is in Bob Baffert’s blood, he can look into that empty stall that once was home to one of the most remarkable horses of all time and begin his dream all over again, knowing, like Zayat, he will never find another one like American Pharoah, whose brilliance, machine-like qualities on the racetrack, and rare personality make one believe he was put on this earth to achieve great things, capture the hearts of people around the world, and rewrite the history books.
I don’t pretend to be able to put myself inside the heads of Baffert and Zayat. I have no idea what their dreams are for the future now that they have turned the ultimate dream into reality. But this is not really about them. This is about all of us who dream and all of us who have racing in our blood and can’t help shedding a tear when witnessing the beauty and courage of a Thoroughbred. And it is about all those who still seek new worlds to conquer even after reaching the apex of their life.
But most of all it is about all of us who at this time of the year give thanks for the privilege of having been touched by the magic of American Pharoah, both on and off the track. Like Baffert and Zayat, we must move on and begin new quests, whether as a fan or a journalist, knowing nothing will surpass what we experienced in 2015. But still we do it, because it’s in our blood. And that alone is something to be thankful for.