<
>

Pharoah's situation personifies horse racing's problems

Jordan Spieth isn't retiring. After he missed the cut last week at the Barclays, retirement wasn't even mentioned. That was one of the few ways his week differed from American Pharoah's.

The careers of Spieth and American Pharoah have been following parallel trajectories for many months now -- since last year, actually. They progressed, the golfer and the racehorse, seemingly and strangely together. Promising youngsters, they quickly became superstars and then history-makers. They transcended their sports to grab the attention of popular culture, their images adorning the covers of magazines and flashing across the country's television screens with the sort of regularity that makes an impression on even the most passive viewers. Wherever they went -- even if it was, in Spieth's case, to hit some practice balls or, in American Pharoah's, to take a routine gallop -- they attracted large crowds of fans and media.

But their paths are about to diverge. And the divergence emphasizes some of horse racing's most troubling problems.

Spieth and American Pharoah were both ranked No. 1 in the world last week. After winning major victories that confirmed the high expectations they had engendered, they arrived at that exalted position quickly. But they didn't share a story of overnight success. They didn't emerge from shadows or obscurity. They had always flashed uncommon potential, Spieth as a college competitor at the University of Texas and American Pharoah as a highly regarded yearling, a $300,000 buy-back from an August sale.

And then last September, American Pharoah won the Del Mar Futurity by nearly five lengths; three weeks later, at Santa Anita, he won the FrontRunner Stakes by more than three. Last November, Spieth won the Australian Open by six strokes, and a week later, in Isleworth, Fla., he won the Hero World Challenge by 10. And so although they were youngsters, Spieth and American Pharoah exuded promise and excited expectations as 2015 began.

In March, they started making good on their promise. American Pharoah traveled to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., and won his seasonal debut, taking the Rebel Stakes by more than six lengths. A day later, on March 15th, Spieth sunk a 30-foot putt on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff to win his first tournament of the year, the Valspar Championship.

In April, returning to Oaklawn, American Pharoah romped in the Arkansas Derby, winning by eight lengths. The victory was so stylish and dominant, so brazenly easy, that it proclaimed American Pharoah to be not just the Kentucky Derby favorite but quite possibly the sport's next superstar. A day later, on April 12th, Spieth completed his romp in the Masters, tying Tiger Woods for the lowest 72-hole score in the history of the famed event (270), setting a record for the most birdies (28) in the championship and becoming only the second person since World War II to win three PGA tournaments before his 22nd birthday.

In June, American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes by more than five lengths to become only the 12th horse in the history of the sport to sweep the famed Triple Crown series. Two weeks later, Spieth birdied the final hole to win at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., becoming only the sixth person ever to win both the Masters and the U.S. Open in the same year.

American Pharoah added a Haskell victory to his sparkling resume, extending his streak of success to eight stakes races, including six this year, and Spieth added a win at the John Deere Classic. After a tie for fourth in the British Open at St. Andrews and a runner-up performance in the PGA Championship, Spieth established an all-time record for the best cumulative score, at 54 under par, for the golf's four major tournaments. Among a strong group of 3-year-olds, American Pharoah dominated. Among the greatest golfers in the world and the strongest PGA cohort in years, Spieth could dominate. And so last week they were both ranked No. 1 in the world.

After the PGA Championship, Spieth admitted he was tired. At one point, he reportedly gave 24 interviews in 24 hours. Everybody, it seemed, was eager to capitalize on his popularity and fame. He threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Texas Rangers ballgame, met a former president and appeared on late-night television. Almost as popular as the young man being called America's "wonder boy," American Pharoah has also found the relentless glare of the spotlight taxing, according to his trainer, Bob Baffert. The pressing crowds and constant attention were nearly as demanding as the races. The horse's handlers must have felt it, too. Racetracks everywhere wanted the Pharoah. Baffert threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Los Angeles Dodgers ballgame. And the Triple Crown winner's jockey, Victor Espinoza, joined the cast for the 21st season of "Dancing with the Stars."

Were they all flying too close to the sun? After shooting 74 in his opening round at the Barclays, Spieth said the course in New Jersey didn't fit his game. He admitted, though, that he didn't play well, didn't make wise decisions, but he thought he could come back from it. And he tried to come back, tried gamely, producing a few flashes, but he came up empty. For two days, everything that could go wrong did indeed wrong for Spieth. At one point, he even stepped on his ball, triggering a penalty. And so he shot 73 Friday, struggling through consecutive over-par rounds for the first time in nearly a year and missing the cut by five strokes.

And if it could all catch up with Spieth last week, was it any wonder, with their trajectories so parallel, that the circumstances and the long campaign and the strain of the travel and the celebrity and, well, just all if it, caught up with American Pharoah, too? A day after Spieth missed the cut, the No. 1 racehorse in the world clearly wasn't himself. Challenged after a half-mile of the Travers Stakes and forced down close to the rail on what appeared to be the slower part of the Saratoga surface, American Pharoah momentarily lost the lead. He fought back gamely, determinedly, putting away one challenger, only to lose to another in the final yards, where he, too, came up empty.

And now their paths diverge. Having dismissed his performance in the Barclays as a "bad week," Spieth knows, as everyone does, that he'll quickly return to championship form. He celebrated his 22nd birthday just over two months ago. Spieth should get only bigger, stronger and better, his best golf still in his future. But even if he slipped into a prolonged slump, he wouldn't leave a void. Golf has other superstars -- Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, who returned to the No. 1 spot in the world rankings -- as well as some other young stars, such as Jason Day and Rickie Fowler.

For high-voltage star power, horse racing, on the other hand, has only American Pharoah. Yes, Honor Code and Beholder are sensational, but they haven't yet reached beyond the sport to a wider audience. Wise Dan and California Chrome are popular, but who knows if they'll recover their championship form, and even they can't approach American Pharoah in terms of transcendent appeal.

Spieth has an extensive and glimmering future, which made his recent performance in New Jersey easy to accept as just some aberration, a "bad week." But American Pharoah has maybe one or two races, if any, left in his career. That awareness so intensified the Travers disappointment that it descended like an avalanche. Suddenly it seemed more than just possible, but also probable, that the sport might never see the depth of the Triple Crown winner's talent. In the aftermath of the Travers, amid much handwringing, the colt's owner, Ahmed Zayat, hinted that he might retire the champion. And that underscored horse racing's most exasperating problem: The sport has few stars, and those it does have shine too briefly.