Winning the Triple Crown was a great accomplishment, but did it make American Pharoah a great racehorse? Well, not necessarily. Twelve horses have swept the famed series, not all of them were great and, frankly, the jury's still out on the latest.
And for American Pharoah, that will be the focus of horse racing's second season, its second half of the year. The first season, as always, focused on the Triple Crown. For most of the country's outstanding horses, the second season is about championships because this is where they'll win them. But for American Pharoah, it's all about legacy because this is where he'll build it.
In 1919, after Sir Barton became the first horse to sweep what became known as the sport's Triple Crown, he lost four of his next five races. In 1935, making his first start after winning the Belmont Stakes, Omaha ran third in the Brooklyn Handicap, so in his only meeting that year with older horses, he failed miserably, eased up while finishing 12 lengths behind Discovery.
Omaha and Sir Barton probably earned a couple of paragraphs in the sport's history, but neither could ever suggest any thoughts of greatness to a reasonable mind. They rank as the lesser talents among the Triple Crown winners.
Where will American Pharoah rank? Make no mistake, he has already clinched the golden Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year. Since 1936, when voting first determined the end-of-the-season awards, every Triple Crown winner has been named Horse of the Year; American Pharoah will be too. His breeding rights already have been sold. So why will he race again? What is there to prove? He's racing for the sport and its fans. And he's racing for his legacy. What will it be?
With a historic sweep that brought the nation's racing fans to their feet and to full-throated exhilaration, American Pharoah became a cover boy and intruded as few racehorses ever have on popular culture, finding a place on all the networks, all the cable news stations and even late-night television. He has become wildly and madly popular. He's also the most intriguing horse in the country.
Still, despite his seven consecutive stakes victories, the depth of his talent remains unexplored. He has won his races by an average margin of more than five lengths, but the sport still hasn't seen American Pharoah's best. Only once has his dominion really been challenged: Since a debut that was a "mess," as his trainer, Bob Baffert, described it, American Pharoah has experienced only one stressful race, on a slow and tiring Churchill surface, where he had a wide trip. Otherwise he has won with ease, often in hand at the wire. How good is he? The thought here is that he has even more talent than he has shown and that he'll improve over the next few races.
Of course, he showed plenty in the Belmont. American Pharoah won with the sixth-fastest time (2:26.65) in the race's long history. Among the 12 Triple Crown winners, only Secretariat ran faster (2:24), setting a world record with what seemed a supernatural performance.
What was most impressive about American Pharoah's Belmont was that he just cruised around the big oval, pricking his ears, running the opening quarter-mile in 24.06 seconds and following it with quarters of 24.77, 24.58, 24.58, 24.34 and 24.32 seconds. The farther they ran, the more obvious his superiority. After slowing the pace in the second quarter, he accelerated for a mile, all the way to the wire. Victor Espinoza, his rider, tapped him a couple of times in the stretch, and American Pharoah glided away from any possible threat.
Affirmed had Alydar to push him to greatness. Secretariat had Sham -- until they approached the second turn at Belmont anyway, and from there he had only history. But who's pushing American Pharoah? He hasn't yet found a rival whose talent can challenge his. So how good is he? The question remains unanswered. Maybe he's just very good, and that's it. Or maybe he's much more. Finding out could make the sport's second season even more memorable than its first.
Many years ago, in 1997, just months before he died at 81, Eddie Arcaro said he didn't know how good Citation was or how fast the colt could have run if pushed. The only jockey ever to ride two Triple Crown winners knew for certain, though, that Citation was the best horse he ever sat on. It was an opinion he expressed often and emphatically.
"In all of Citation's races, I never let him run," Arcaro said on the TV show "The Way It Was" in 1975. "How fast could he have run? I don't know."
In that regard, American Pharoah could be much like Citation. And if the ancient videos can be trusted, American Pharaoh moves with a grace and efficiency that's somewhat reminiscent of one of the sport's greatest. This isn't meant to suggest their talents or achievements are comparable, however. In 1948, after Citation swept the Triple Crown, he won nine more races, beating older horses five times and winning the Pimlico Special in a walkover. In the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he beat Phalanx, the champion 3-year-old of the previous season, by seven lengths. Citation finished the year with 15 consecutive victories and a record of 27 wins from 29 starts, his only losses coming when he was carried wide in the mud and, as a 2-year-old, when he finished second to a stablemate, the champion filly Bewitch, without being fully extended. Citation's greatness will forever be unimpeachable.
American Pharoah, on the other hand, remains vulnerable to skepticism. He got lucky when the rain fell in Baltimore, giving him a muddy surface he loved, and he was able to run loose on the lead in New York, or at least that's how skepticism sees it. But the most talented Triple Crown winners made it look easy too. Will American Pharoah be regarded among them? His legacy could depend on his next three or four races, but here's a guess at where he could rank among Triple Crown winners.
Rating the Crowned Dozen
1. Secretariat (1973): He won 16 of 21 races and was Horse of the Year both seasons he raced. Still, separating Secretariat and Citation is difficult, if not impossible, coming as they do 25 years apart. It's hard to imagine Citation losing to Onion. On the other hand, Secretariat set a track record in all three of his Triple Crown victories (the one at Pimlico acknowledged belatedly) and twice won on turf. Even Arcaro conceded that no horse could have beaten Secretariat in the Belmont, where he won by 31 lengths.
2. Citation (1948): In February, in the first two starts of his 3-year-old campaign, he defeated the reigning Horse of the Year, Armed. Injured in his final start of 1948, Citation probably should have been retired and certainly would have been if the sport's economics then were anything like today's. After a year away from races, he returned in 1950, but he wasn't the same horse. Still, he won his first outing that year, giving him 16 consecutive victories. Citation was retired in 1951 after winning 32 of his 45 races, with 10 seconds and two thirds.
3. Seattle Slew (1977): Seattle Slew overcame a troubled trip to win the Kentucky Derby, and after wins in Baltimore and New York, he completed the Triple Crown as its only undefeated champion. After such an accomplishment, he deserved a vacation, but instead he raced again three weeks later, losing for the first time. At 4, he twice defeated Affirmed. Seattle Slew's runner-up effort in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, by a nose to Exceller after being pressed through rapid fractions, was arguably one of the greatest losing efforts in the sport's history. He retired with 14 wins in 17 starts.
4. Count Fleet (1943): He made the Triple Crown look easy. A week after he won the Kentucky Derby by three lengths while in hand, he took the Preakness by eight. Two weeks later, he won the Withers Stakes by five, and two weeks after that he won the Belmont Stakes by 25. Injured in his Belmont romp, he never raced again. But the great Johnny Longden, who rode the colt in all his races, insisted Count Fleet was among the greatest horses of all time. He won 16 of his 21 in a career that left many fans wondering how good he might have been.
5. Affirmed (1978): His rivalry with Alydar was probably the sport's greatest, even though it became rather one-sided. Affirmed won six of their nine meetings, losing the Travers by disqualification. He lost his final two races of 1978 (his saddle slipped in the Jockey Club Gold Cup) and his first two of 1979. But Affirmed concluded his career with seven consecutive wins, including victories over Spectatcular Bid and Coastal, to be named Horse of the Year again. He won 22 of his 29 races.
6. American Pharoah (2015): This ranking assumes American Pharoah hasn't shown all his cards. He won the Derby despite racing wide, and he dominated in the Preakness and Belmont, winning easily. How fast could he run with a good trip, if asked? How will he respond when challenged? His answers could determine his legacy.
7. War Admiral (1937): The diminutive but speedy son of Man o' War generally ran horses off their feet. War Admiral led throughout all three races of the Triple Crown, but he hardly dominated. He won the Preakness by a head over Pompoon, the champion juvenile of 1936, and was most impressive in the Belmont, winning by three. But War Admiral might be best known for a race he lost, the match race in 1938 with Seabiscuit. War Admiral won 21 of 26.
8. Whirlaway (1941): The long-tailed chestnut relied on a powerful rally, and he was often successful, always reliable. Like Assault, he won the Derby by eight lengths, which remains the largest margin of victory in the first race of the famed series. At the end of the season, he ran second twice while taking on older horses. Although probably not as talented as Assault, Whirlaway was remarkably consistent over a long career, winning 32 of 60 races and finishing "in the money" 56 times.
9. Assault (1946): The Club-Footed Comet, as he was called, had a rather spotty career, largely because of physical problems that sometimes compromised his later performances. But Arcaro, who got the mount at the end of the '46 season, said that at his best, Assault was as good as any horse he ever rode except, of course, Citation. Assault won the Kentucky Derby by eight lengths, held on gamely to win the Preakness by a neck, then drew clear by three in the Belmont. He concluded his campaign with victories over older horses in the Pimlico Special and Westchester Handicap. As a 4-year-old, he beat such champions as Stymie and Gallorette, but for the final three years of his career he won a total of only three races. Assault was retired in 1950 after winning 18 of 42.
10. Gallant Fox (1930): From a foal crop of only 4,182, Gallant Fox was clearly superior to the horses of his time, but that's like saying he was the tallest building in Kansas. How good were they? Gallant Fox won only two stakes as a juvenile, but began going regularly to the winner's circle once the distances stretched out. He won the Kentucky Derby eight days after the Preakness -- yes, after -- and then beat three horses three weeks later to win the Belmont. He won 9 of 10 as a 3-year-old, losing only the Travers, somewhat famously, to Jim Dandy, and was retired at the end of the season. Gallant Fox won 11 of 17 in his career.
11. Sir Barton (1919): He entered the Kentucky Derby as a maiden. Actually, his stablemate Billy Kelly was much more highly regarded, and they ran one-two, with Sir Barton winning by five lengths. He also won the Preakness and Belmont easily, taking the three races of the series by a total of 14 lengths. But Billy Kelly, who this year was inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame, beat Sir Barton in eight of their 12 meetings. So how good was Sir Barton? He did very little as a juvenile in six races, but at ages 3 and 4, Sir Barton performed admirably, never finishing worse than fourth while winning 13 stakes. In fact, all his victories came in stakes; he won 13 of 31 in his career.
12. Omaha (1935): In between the Preakness and the Belmont, the son of Gallant Fox lost the Withers. After the Belmont, in his only race against older horses, Omaha was humbled by Discovery, who would have won the golden Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year if there had been such a thing. As a 4-year-old, Omaha raced in England, winning two of his four races. He finished with nine wins in 22 races.