Over a year ago, I made plans with a close friend to attend the 2015 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland, one of America’s most storied and sublimely beautiful horse racing venues. Little did I know then that I would be witnessing history on a steel-grey, autumn day in October.
Thirteen times since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1978 had a horse taken us into the final leg of the Triple Crown with the hopes of a nation astride him, only to be beaten in that grueling mile-and-a-half test of endurance that is Belmont. Many folks (most notably, California Chrome owner Steve Coburn in his 2014 post-Belmont rant) thought there would never be another Triple Crown winner, at least not in their lifetimes. However, between that day in March when I purchased our Breeders’ Cup tickets and a week ago Saturday when I stepped onto the Keeneland grounds, something happened that the horse racing industry, and the entire country for that matter, had been anticipating for 37 long, seemingly hopeless years: American Pharoah, an unassuming-looking, bay 3-year-old colt won the Triple Crown.
Unassuming, that is, until you saw him run. Never have I seen a horse run so smoothly, so effortlessly, making it look fun and running with his ears up, a sign all horse people know means that horse is enjoying the hell out of himself! Pharoah makes the others look like they have to fight for every step while he’s out front on the lead, good-bye, sayonara, catch ya later! He won on every surface, in every condition, at every length from 7 furlongs to a mile and a half. In what I think might be the coolest looking race he won (although definitely not against the strongest field he ever faced), he bested the rest of the bunch in the 1 1/16 mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, leading it wire to wire again with his ears up almost the entire way, leaving the other contenders in the final furlong to trounce them by 6 ¼ lengths in the slop! And jockey Victor Espinoza never even went to the whip!
Only twice going into the October 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic was Pharoah ever beaten: Once in his first race as a 2-year-old and then again on August 29 in the Travers at Saratoga, a race that came after a 3-year-old season having, up to that point, consisted of two Derby prep races, the punishing Triple Crown campaign and the Haskell Invitational a few weeks earlier in August. Is it any wonder the horse was pooped going into the Travers, especially when you also take into account the cross-country shipping he endured almost every time he raced? And he still ran a gallant second even then.
A horse like Pharoah runs like he does because he’s bred to do it and he’s bred to love it, and love it he does. Watch his body language: Does this horse look like he’s being forced to do something he doesn’t care for? Horses, all of them, not just Pharoah, are bigger and stronger than us. They don’t have to do what we ask of them. If they only knew, they could take charge and tell us humans to take a hike. Yet they don’t (or at least most of them don’t). They readily submit to what we ask of them, and a true horseman, one who respects his or her four-legged partner, doesn’t ask more than the horse can give. Both horse and rider feed off of the bond of trust that’s established between the two. It’s hard, maybe even impossible, for a non-horseperson to understand. But because I do understand it, and experience it on a regular basis with my two American Saddlebreds, it makes what American Pharaoh has accomplished even more incredible to me than the average layperson may ever be able to comprehend.
So after Pharoah’s history-making win in the Belmont Stakes, it hit me that possibly, quite possibly, if the stars aligned just right and Pharoah stayed healthy and sound, I was actually going to witness a Triple Crown winner in the flesh come Breeders’ Cup time in October. But he’s just a horse one might say. A word of advice: Don’t ever say those words to a horse owner. A horse is never just a horse, and this horse in particular is beyond special.
We got up before daybreak on Thursday, October 29, in hopes of seeing Pharoah work on the Keeneland main track. I had a blistering migraine but that didn’t matter. I was going to see Pharoah close-up if it killed me. It had rained the day before and Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, had then decided to hand-walk him under tack in the shed row instead of taking him to the track, so the anticipation was high that he would make an appearance Thursday morning. Although the rain had moved on, the main track was still sloppy when we arrived at 6:15 a.m. along with several hundred other folks who also wanted to catch a glimpse. We waited about two and a half hours with no Pharoah, although we got to see plenty of other Breeders’ Cup contenders exercise.
About thirty minutes before the track was scheduled to close for the morning, the PA announcer oh-so-politely let us know that Pharoah’s connections had determined the main track was still too sloppy. It had been decided that the mighty Pharoah was going to work on Keeneland’s synthetic training track instead. At that, we all bolted the quarter-mile down the hill to wrestle for a good spot on the training track rail. You ever tried to run that far with a migraine? It ain’t easy, peeps, but I did it.
We waited about another 10 minutes and then here he came, down the hill at the far end of the track, in the company of his sidekick and stable pony, Smokey. They traveled clockwise about halfway down the backstretch and disappeared behind some trees. And then . . .a bay streak came flying from behind the tree cover and he was on his way towards us . . . fast! Finally, I was watching Pharoah run with my own eyes and it was beautiful.
He made three circuits of the training track and then his exercise rider pulled him up just to our right. He turned and trotted by us one last time about 20 feet away . . . and then he was gone. It was enough.
I love horse racing, but it does have a dark side, one that I sometimes struggle with, being a fan of the sport but also being an animal lover. That’s another topic for another blog post however, and on this weekend, I just hoped to be lucky enough to witness history. Importantly though, as far as the Breeders’ Cup Classic was concerned, yes, I wanted to see Pharoah race and yes, I wanted him to win, but more than anything I just wanted Pharoah and all of the other horses running to come out of the race safe and sound. I got my wish.
Having attended the Breeders’ Cup in 2010 when Zenyatta ran (and sadly, lost) her last race, I knew there would be no getting near the paddock to see American Pharoah during saddling for the Classic, so we contented ourselves with waiting for his appearance on the track in the post parade. Nervous is an understatement as to how I felt when he emerged from the tunnel, and I said a little prayer for everyone’s safety. Post parade completed, they loaded the contenders into the gate and they were off! Victor Espinoza sent Pharoah straight to the front and when they came by us the first time, he had his ears up yet again. Our seats were such that we could see the entire track, backstretch and all, and for most of the race, his ears never wavered. Pharoah opened up a little lead on the other horses and everyone settled in. As they neared the end of the backstretch, the field started to come to Pharoah a little bit and I began to get worried. Silly me, I forgot Pharoah’s and Espinoza’s M.O.: Espinoza hadn’t even asked his horse for anything yet. As they came around the final turn, he did . . . and Pharoah opened up!
Just like that American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza came down the homestretch for the final time, this time right in front of me, widening the gap and winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic by a dominating 6 ½ lengths. Needless to say, no other horse was even closing at the finish. I know it’s cliché, but I did have chills, chills on top of chills. I cried, we screamed, we hugged strangers, strangers hugged us back. And on that day, the last Saturday in October 2015, I, and 50,000 of my closest friends, witnessed a horse do something no other horse has ever done in the history of this great world, something that had to be given a new name: American Pharoah had won the Grand Slam of horse racing. It was enough.
(POSTSCRIPT: In a bit of coincidence, or serendipity, or whatever you want to call it, American Pharoah now resides at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. in a stall formerly occupied by a now-deceased stallion who previously stood there. The stallion’s name: Grand Slam.)