Last year I cheered on the exciting, but ultimately unsuccessful Triple Crown quest of an improbable thoroughbred champion named California Chrome*– dubbed the “people’s horse” by his Michigan owners in tribute to their working class roots and the horse’s modest breeding tag. On the first Saturday of June this year, I celebrated my birthday with friends by watching a 3 year old, frisky Bay colt named American Pharoah** finally end the 37 year drought in one of sport’s most elite championships by dramatically winning the Belmont. You have to go back to 1978 for the last Triple Crown triumph, when Affirmed beat his archrival Alydar three times to become only the 11th superstar since 1919 in the club that also added Seattle Slew in ’77 and Secretariat in ’73. Secretariat’s win followed Citation in 1948, a 27 year drought.
Yes, we got spoiled in the ‘70s. That trio of superstars made those of us lucky enough to see one or more of them win believe we would keep seeing more coronations in the “80s. I was new to horseracing and handicapping in those years and lucky enough to be hanging out with college friends Alan and Peggy Fisk at the New York tracks. We had all started our journalism careers in Detroit, but it wasn’t until we met up again in New York that they convinced me to occasionally join them on summer weekends handicapping America’s best thoroughbreds .
As the years passed without a winner, we were reminded that the Triple Crown combines a grueling pace – three races in five weeks – with a final painful distance of one-and-a-half miles as the final test. The Triple Crown begins with the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in early May, followed in a few weeks by the Preakness at Baltimore’s Pimlico Racetrack, capped by the Belmont in early June in New York. The team behind American Pharoah needed to get seasoned by first taking a few talented racehorses part of the way. In fact, 13 horses since 1978 have won two races before failing to win the Belmont. Over the past 36 years, Bob Baffert –the Hall of Fame trainer of American Pharoah– has had five thoroughbreds win two of the three major races, most recently War Emblem in 2002. For American Pharoah’s Jockey , Victor Espinoza, it was his third Triple Crown attempt – the first was on Baffert’s War Emblem and last year he rode California Chrome to a heartbreaking third place finish in the Belmont for trainer Art Sherman.
American Pharoah’s owner, Egyptian-American businessman Ahmed Zayat, was confident that his horse had the right bloodlines to go the distance – his only flaw was a short “tail” bitten in an encounter with another horse. This year, the Belmont yielded a spectacular win for Zayat’s horse, by 5-1/2 lengths, in a time only beaten by Secretariat. Yes, for some members of the American Pharoah team, the victory came after a few very painful failures. Ultimately that’s a good lesson for all of us on staying the course –and don’t forget American Pharoah’s own “painful” encounter on the road to victory.
* Despite losing the Belmont, California Chrome went on last year to win more stakes races and was crowned Horse of the Year for 2014.
**The misspelling of the word pharaoh occurred during a contest and was not caught until after it was officially submitted to the Jockey Club.