"That American Pharoah was really something," George said, referring to the recent Haskell, as I handed him my car keys. "I watched that race Sunday. He did it so easy. He's so much faster than the other horses." As George spoke, his eyes widened, and he looked like a guy whose life had just taken a turn for the thrilling.
For a moment, to water this seed of interest, I considered telling him that, yes, the Haskell was special but the best race of the year will be run Saturday at Saratoga: the Whitney. I feared, though, that he would ask if American Pharoah was running again. Even more, I feared that when I said, "No, but the field includes Honor Code, Tonalist, Noble Bird, Liam's Map, Lea and Wicked Strong," George would look at me with an expression of indulgent and patronizing skepticism, like Billy Crystal's during the restaurant scene in "When Harry Met Sally." So I not only agreed, but I filed the moment away in my memory, in the "Public Perception" drawer, under "Milestone."
I've been taking my cars to George's service center for 20 years or so. He has sometimes mentioned horse racing, but infrequently and only in generic terms, usually as a courteous gesture. He might ask, "How's the racetrack doing?" or "Are they running out there at Lone Star Park?" But this was different. For the first time, George mentioned a specific horse and race. The sport was no longer abstract; it suddenly had recognizable specificity; it had a star. And having seen American Pharoah win the Haskell with such effortless aplomb, George will probably make sure he sees the colt's next race, too, whatever it might be.
That's what the 12th Triple Crown winner has done for the sport. Regardless of what you might think of American Pharoah's place in history or even how he matches up with the best of the older horses, he's the sport's only superstar. He has put horse racing on the popular sports agenda, even for people who might not otherwise be inclined to watch. The question is whether a sport torn apart by internecine squabbles and rivalries can come together long enough to capitalize on the Triple Crown winner's popularity.
Probably not. To watch horse racing's so-called leaders try to guide the sport into the future is to experience at least once a month the exquisite joy of saying, "I told you so." Monmouth Park turned American Pharoah's New Jersey sojourn into a "Phan Phestival," and the Haskell attracted a record crowd of nearly 61,000. But what has the sport at large done? And will racing make an effort to transfer some of that Pharoah excitement to other divisions and other races?
I can't be confident. That's why, looking back on it, I realize I should have gone ahead and told George about the Whitney.
"American Pharoah is sensational, he dominates horses, but he's running against nothing but youngsters," I could have told him. "And very soon he's going to have to take his seat at the grown-up table: Very soon, maybe next month or the month after that, he'll have to run against older horses. And many of the best and most talented older horses in the country meet Saturday in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. Is one of them good enough to challenge American Pharoah? Maybe, but they all seem to be dragging a catechism of questions into the race.
"Take Honor Code, for example. Honor Code seems to have the talent for the job, but, still, he's something of a mystery. He has given the best performances of his career when running one mile around one turn. He was nothing less than spectacular, for example, when he won the Met Mile. But the Whitney is a mile-and-an-eighth race around two turns. And if he ever meets American Pharoah, it'll probably be in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland, at a mile-and-a-quarter. Now, you'd think a long-striding horse such as Honor Code, who's a son, by the way, of a Belmont Stakes winner, would love two turns and longer distances, but -- well, he has to prove it.
"And you probably remember Tonalist. He won last year's Belmont Stakes, but has he improved any as a 4-year-old? So far he hasn't. And will he and John Velazquez, the sport's all-time leading jockey, become a winning team? So far they haven't. They have something to prove, too.
"But Noble Bird and Liam's Map might be the most intriguing horses in the Whitney. Noble Bird is a sociable, gregarious sort. Hard to ride though. When he makes the lead in a race, he waits for other horses -- yes, I know, but that's what he does. He's very courteous. Might be fun to see what he'd do in a race with fillies -- just kidding. But you can see it if you watch closely: He waits. That's why his last four races have all ended in a photo finish. Could he beat American Pharoah? I don't know, but he might be good enough to get in a picture with him.
"And then there's Liam's Map. He and American Pharoah have lost exactly the same number of races in their careers: one. Since his only defeat, Liam's Map has won four straight. He's a speedy sort of horse, but he never has raced so far as he'll be asked to run Saturday, nor has he run against the quality of opposition he'll find in the Whitney, all of which means it's impossible to know just how good he is. Is he good enough? Wicked Strong, Lea, Moreno, Normandy Invasion, V.E. Day and Coach Inge -- they're in the Whitney, too, and they're all talented. But could any of them be talented enough to challenge or even defeat American Pharoah?"
And then I could look at George and shrug, saying, "That's why you need to watch this race."
Yes, I should have spoken up about the Whitney. But I still have time. I think I need an oil change.