Welcome to Next Year

What 1994 meant to New York Rangers hockey fans (54 years), or 2004 to the Red Sox Nation (86 years): this is what 2015 means to my people. For the long-suffering pilgrims of American thoroughbred racing, there is no more waiting in vain. 1978 is put to bed and the ghosts of Affirmed and Alydar may now rest easy. Lafayette, we are here.

It is a wonderful curiosity, this American fascination with the Triple Crown. While the country may pause for a couple of minutes on the first Saturday of every May to chug-a-lug a mint julep, the souvenir glasses tell us there will always be a Derby winner; some more memorable than others. For every Spectacular Bid or Silver Charm – great horses who could not quite complete the crown – there are two or three Lil E. Tees and Super Savers. Winning the Triple Crown is truly exceptional. It happens rarely enough to be generally recognized as historic, and just often enough that it is neither an anachronism (as it is in England, with only one Triple Crown winner in the last 80 years) nor forgotten.

American Pharoah’s brilliant performance in yesterday’s Belmont Stakes will ensure that the Triple Crown will remain exactly what it has been since it was first awarded retroactively to Sir Barton for his victories in 1919: an unsparingly difficult achievement worthy of the greatest possible levels of admiration and respect.

American Pharoah’s ruthlessly efficient yet seemingly effortless action, which lends to that appearance of him seeming to glide above the racetrack, was the basis of his early fame and almost certainly his armor against the rigors of the Triple Crown. That certain je ne sais quoi that first caught all the eyes at Clocker’s Corner, enabled him, at the end of three hard races in five weeks, to somehow run the last half mile of his Belmont faster than he ran his first. He is the very model of a modern Triple Crown winner.

While we have been sharply critical of Ahmad Zayat under this URL (just look one post below this one), this does not hold true for his horse. Despite our previous skepticism and that funny tail we can find absolutely no flies on American Pharoah. We congratulate the Zayat Stable family on their great accomplishment.

While there are always plenty of things to say about Bob Baffert, what must be acknowledged here and now is his absolute mastery at getting fast horses to run their best in all three Triple Crown races. Yes, other trainers might have been able to train American Pharoah to the same result, but Baffert’s the one who did it. This season should remove any remaining doubt that he is far and away the greatest Triple Crown trainer of the last twenty years. Attention must be paid.

The people who constitute the balance of the Baffert team – the assistants and the grooms and the exercise riders –  are used to toiling in relative obscurity. For these unheralded contributors, we are reminded of what Red Smith wrote in his forward to Joe Palmer’s This Was Racing: “Those who have had a part in this are well aware of it and have their own satisfaction in it, and would not want credit for what was a great privilege.” We imagine that these hard workers feel much the same way, but we salute them anyway.

Credit is also due to the horseplayers, and race fans, and hat-wearing millenials and all of their fellow travelers, who – against what most would consider good judgment – braved the Long Island Railroad and the Cross Island Parkway and the New York Racing Association’s recent history and came away winners, regardless of whatever bets they made. As morning showers gave way to a breezy midday and a gorgeous late afternoon, this 90,000 partnered with one special horse to produce a magic hour that was truly magical.

While the sun was getting lower out beyond the far turn as the clock neared seven, Victor Espinoza kept American Pharoah out alongside the westernmost outer rail, well away from the grandstand. While Frosted and Keen Ice could amble about the 1/8th pole in anticipation of the start without attracting attention, Espinoza wisely kept his star waiting in the wings. The glorious uncertainty – that palpable collective consciousness that fills the air before a race such as this – was the strongest I had ever sensed in this my ninth pilgrimage to Elmont’s gates of “History”.

To my right I exchanged “thumbs up” with John from Garden City, a serious bettor who had earlier hit the Pick 5 for $11,000, but was now just another anxious fan who had paid $400 on StubHub for a market rate view of history in the making. To my left was a kid fresh out of college whose name I never got, but who was part of a twenty-odd group of youngsters led by a wise old head from Manorville. Racing’s shaky present, sitting side by side with its uncertain future, both of them hoping to find in this 3-year-old colt some magic that could last another 37 years if necessary.

Unhappy Triple Crown endings tend to be unique. Some fizzle out early, like War Emblem stumbling out of the gate, or Funny Cide splashing rankly through the slop. Some come crashing down all at once, like Sunday Silence being left behind like Easy Goer’s lost luggage at the top of the stretch. The ones that had seemed the most inevitable going in – Smarty Jones and most certainly Big Brown – were the most painful to watch unravel. Even though I had a very modest sum on Frosted’s nose, after all these tales of woe, I was eager to find out what a happy Triple Crown ending felt like.

The college kid to my left asked – as Espinoza paraded American Pharoah before the grandstand to wild adulation – if the horse had any idea what was going on. “He knows he made his people happy,” I said, meaning Espinoza and Baffert mostly, but also all of us. He must know that now. Next year was here. Ninety thousand people ennobled by a horse. Even if it takes another 37 years to find another, I’m certain that nearly every last one of of those ninety thousand will tell you: it will have been worth the wait.

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