The crowd and nation loved what they saw; can it last?
by John Furgele
As soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line, the experts were already busy assessing the long-term impact that a Triple Crown winner would have on the sport. The main question—will American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run “save” horse racing? Will more fans come to the proverbial horse racing table to become permanent fans?
Naturally, to dismiss those questions would be a grave error. The people who love the sport got the boost that they wanted. American Pharoah became the 12th horse to win the Sport of King’s elusive Triple Crown. His performance in the Belmont was breathtaking, and the 90,000 in attendance who launched a deafening roar as he crossed the line brought a tear to my eyes and I’ll assume thousands more across the country.
And, for those desperate to see a Triple Crown for the first time since 1978–some to the point of calling for alterations for how it is conducted–a few years of silence has been bought. Winning the Triple Crown is hard and it’s supposed to be hard. We live in a society that no longer has patience. We want things when we want them, and we don’t believe in waiting. Last year, we were treated to California Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn saying that having fresh horses in the Belmont was the “cowards way out,” when one of them, Tonalist, drubbed his little colt in the last furlongs of the race.
Those in the know, and that includes winning trainer Bob Baffert, state that it takes a super horse to win the Triple Crown. By doing so, Pharoah now qualifies as one. His time of 2:26.65 is the sixth fastest Belmont of all time, and the second fastest of the Triple Crown winners behind Secretariat in 1973. The astonishing aspect is that American Pharoah ran negative splits. His first six furlongs were timed in 1:13.41 and his final six in 1:13.25. That is almost unthinkable, and he did it without any pace as he led from wire to wire.
In addition to having to be a super horse, you do need some racing luck on your side. It’s anything goes in the 20- (this year 18-) horse Kentucky Derby as we have seen horses get bumped, boxed and everything in between. Point Given was a great horse. He won the Belmont in 2:26.56 and before that the Preakness, but his Derby trip was not a good one. Afleet Alex had an off Derby then dominated the Preakness and the Belmont. Both were fantastic horses, but in order to be a legend, you need the talent and yes, some luck.
We have seen horses win the first two legs and for the most part, they usually stumble at Big Sandy, a relentless dream killer. My contention is that California Chrome, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and all the others didn’t lose the Belmont; Big Sandy won it. Before yesterday, previous Belmont winners had at least raced at Belmont Park as a two or three year old and that isn’t easy to do. If you don’t race the previous fall as a two-year-old, you’re not going to be able to run the Derby, Preakness and race there before the Belmont Stakes, because nobody races at the big park from January to late April. American Pharoah proved that neither a race nor a workout at Big Sandy is essential. Once again, a super horse is what we saw. And, as much as I have rooted for Big Sandy to blow up would-be Triple Crown dreamers, it has to be said that American Pharoah brought her to her knees, and the great thing is that Big Sandy acknowledged that. As relentless as she can be, she knows greatness when she sees it.
What will this win really do for Horse Racing? In the grand scheme of things probably not a lot. But the sport had to have gained thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of new fans. These fans probably won’t flock to race tracks, but if they watch the TV listings, they will likely tune in here and there to watch racing. Horse racing doesn’t need people to go to the track per se, but they do need people to open up betting accounts and do some gambling, and yesterday’s result should help there. Horse racing is gambling based, but it competes with casinos, illegal bookies and fantasy sports. In a case of clear irony, yesterday’s NBC broadcast was presented by Draft Kings, a fantasy sports company that offers daily competitions and cash prizes. This is just one example of what horse racing has to deal with.
The television rating for yesterday’s race was a 12.3 and the share was 27. That is very good, slightly below Game One of the NBA Finals which drew a 12.9. Sadly, it was lower than last year’s 12.9, but then again, a Triple Crown was also on the line. The key to the sport’s staying power will be the Breeder’s Cup, which will be contested on October 30 and 31. Love it or not, the Breeder’s Cup is the sport’s Super Bowl, and the Breeder’s Cup Classic will be featured near prime time on Halloween Saturday. History says the ratings will be low. Last year’s rating for the Breeder’s Cup Classic was a 1.8, lower than Serena Williams’ Saturday morning 1.9 in the French Open final. The key is to somehow burn this moment into our collective conscience so we will remember to tune in this fall.
The owner of American Pharoah, Ahmed Zayat, says that horse racing needs stars. However, the big money is in breeding, and that presents a dilemma. Billy Turner, the trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, says that it would be important to see American Pharoah run as a four-year-old before going off to stud. Seattle Slew did that, as did 1978 crown winner Affirmed; in fact, the two raced each other in 1978. That would the best thing for the sport, but would it be cost effective? Zayat has already sold the breeding rights to Coolmore Farms for a reported $100 million. For horses, every race could be their last; American Pharoah could break down in his next start and be euthanized. Nobody wants to think of that, but Zayat has to.
The likely scenario is to have American Pharoah get some rest and race three or four more times in 2015 and then head off to a life of making babies. It’s certainly not a bad retirement, but it will deprive the country of seeing this star run in the future. Does that help or hurt the sport? This is far from new. Secretariat didn’t run as a four-year-old, and the older horses that do run never won big races like the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
America is a fascinating place. We are obsessed with sports. Sports draw people in for many reasons. For some, it’s passion for their city. The person in Cleveland is going to root for the Indians, Cavaliers and Browns come hell or high water. For others, it’s about magical moments—like seeing Tiger Woods dominate in a major; Roger Federer win 17 Grand Slam tennis tournaments; and Tom Brady, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana win four Super Bowls. For most born in 1972 or prior, the signature moment of their sports lifetime was the “Miracle on Ice,” the 1980 United States hockey team beating the Soviet Union and then Finland to win an unlikely gold medal. This is why people watch sports, sometimes endlessly and often to the detriment of health and even family and loved ones.
The 2015 Belmont Stakes was one of those moments. One of those “where were you,” moments that frankly don’t come around very often, and if they did, well, they wouldn’t be magical or timeless. It put horse racing on the map for a period of yet-to-be determined time, but for 60 minutes or so on a sunny Saturday in Elmont, NY, the sport and the horse with the misspelled name shined brightly.
The key isn’t how long the moment will last, it’s having the moment, and that is what America got for the first time in 37 years.