by John Furgele
I’ve been a fan and follower of Horse Racing since 1977 when Seattle Slew blazed to a Triple Crown. The next year, I saw another Triple Crown when Affirmed outdueled Alydar in three scintillating races. In 1979, Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and here I was an 11 year old who thought winning Triple Crowns was easy. In fact, I might have been rooting against The Bid just to see the streak end. In 1980, the great filly Genuine Risk won the Derby and then appeared to be bumped by eventual winner Codex in the Preakness. It took 18 days for Codex’s victory to become official. But, in my four years watching Triple Crown races, it appeared to me that winning the crown wasn’t that hard.
As we know, it took 37 years for American Pharoah to become the 12th horse to capture the coveted Triple Crown. And, then on Saturday, The Pharoah cemented his legacy by romping home by 6 ½ lengths in the Breeder’s Cup Classic. In my 39 years of following the sport, I have never seen a horse with a better cruising speed than American Pharoah. History may show that there may have been faster horses, but Pharoah’s cruising speed, to me, is second-to-none. We have seen him go out, settle, pick up the pace, settle and then pick it up and settle again. His Preakness winning time was a slow 1:58.46 for 1 3/16 miles, but one must remember that he passed 6 furlongs in 1:11.42 and then turned his engine off. We all know how effortlessly he won the Haskell and the Classic, once again, just cruising—and holding it—all the way.
The only time American Pharoah looked like a “normal” horse was when Keen Ice slid past him in the Travers. Like many horses, on that day, Pharoah looked like he was running in mud the final 220 yards, something that all horses do at the end of a 1 ¼ mile race. In the Travers, he looked like Effinex did in the Classic; running hard at the end but not running all that fast. That’s what I’ll remember about the Bob Baffert trained and Ahmed Zayat owned colt—that fabulous cruising speed.
As good as American Pharoah’s performance was, the only other horse that looked like he showed up was Effinex. The Jimmy Jerkens trained colt tried to keep up with American Pharoah and at the end, fought gamely to finish second to earn the $1 million second place money. The rest of the horses looked disinterested and hardly proved formidable for the Triple Crown winner. Tonalist is a good horse, but he never wins away from Belmont Park; Honor Code is a fine horse, but with no early speed to challenge Pharoah, had nothing to run in to. Frosted came in with an impressive Pennsylvania Derby win under him, but was never a factor and at the end of a long year, that is certainly understandable. Keen Ice benefitted from the Travers dual between Frosted and American Pharoah and to me, proved that he is not a world-class horse. It certainly didn’t help when the sensational filly, Beholder had to be scratched. She is a speedster and even though I didn’t think she could win, she would have given some pressure to jockey Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah.
The race served as a coronation of American Pharoah’s greatness. Unless you had serious money on another horse or were connected to one, you got the result you wanted. The Keeneland crowd of 50,000 plus roared in adoration for a colt that in 2015 has raced in Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, New York again and then Kentucky again. The only surprise was that the California based colt never raced in California.
The only negative—and villain if you will—was Todd Pletcher. Pletcher trains Liam’s Map, a terrific colt who likes to wire fields. Three weeks ago, he was 99 percent certain to run the Classic and put the much needed pressure from the gate on American Pharoah. Pletcher is arguably the best trainer in the nation; each year, he leads in earnings, but sometimes, he loses sight of the bigger picture. There is a story out there that Coolmore Farms did not want both Liam’s Map and Honor Code in the Classic, but that hasn’t stopped Pletcher from running up to six horses in the Kentucky Derby and then none in the Preakness. If you own a horse and entrust him to a trainer, shouldn’t you listen to your trainer? It didn’t keep Shug McGaughey from entering Honor Code in the Classic, but for some reason, Pletcher backed Liam’s Map out.
Liam’s Map did go out and dominate in the Dirt Mile, but to me, it was a win that lacked satisfaction. As he turned for home on Friday, all I could think was “why isn’t this colt in the Classic?” The sport needs drama and Liam’s Map could have provided such. Pletcher could have done what was right for the sport by challenging American Pharoah, but once again, he didn’t.
Pletcher learned under the swashbuckler, D. Wayne Lukas and the two are polar opposites. Often, people doubt Lukas’ intentions when he enters horses in big races, while Pletcher often goes the conservative route. No horse race is ever easy, they all take something out of the horse, but with Beholder and Smooth Roller out and Liam’s Map in another race, American Pharoah’s path at Keeneland was made much easier. And, it was made even easier when six of the eight horses didn’t really bother to show up. Give credit to Effinex. He ran hard and ran well and even though he was more than 6 lengths back, it was to a super horse that broke the Keeneland track record for 1 ¼ miles when he blazed home in a time of 2 minutes and .07 seconds.
Now, it is up to the experts and the historians to determine American Pharoah’s greatness. At best, he is second, as nobody—at least in 2015—can unseat Secretariat. I would rank him number one (remember it’s from 1977 for me). As good as Seattle Slew was, he didn’t face as many good colts in his Triple Crown run and of course, didn’t win a Breeder’s Cup, which would begin in 1984. As good as Affirmed was, and there was nobody that refused to lose more than him, he didn’t face as many horses as Pharoah has. Now in his defense, he had the one great rival, Alydar, the hard-luck three time runner-up, but Pharoah had worthy adversaries in Firing Line, Frosted and Keen Ice, who of course did beat him in the Travers.
The thing that puts him over the top is that cruising speed. When he won the Derby, people thought he was vulnerable because his winning time was slow. It was in the Preakness that he proved his toughness. The weather was atrocious and The Pharoah ran like it was 60 and sunny. He took care of all comers and then turned off his engine. His Belmont performance was legendary. He ran the last quarter in 24.32 seconds and his winning time of 2:26.65 was extraordinarily good.
Now, he heads for some well-deserved rest. In the spring, he will “meet up” with some fillies and for at least $100,000 will begin a stud career. His first offspring will have 2017 birth years and by 2019, we will see how the genes transfer when his babies start training and racing.
They have a lot to live up to.