From the spurious explanation that The Jockey Club was to blame for the misspelling of the colt's name, to the hasty announcement that the Travers might have been his last race, to the social media outrage that erupted after the Sports Illustrated snub, horse racing was all about American Pharoah in 2015. From his skipping through the slop at Oaklawn Park, to his collecting all the sport's famous jewels, to his dominating the Breeders' Cup Classic, American Pharoah's story was the only story that transcended the sport and entered into what passes these days for popular awareness.
Sure, horse racing tossed some other big stories onto the shore, but his was the only one that mattered outside the sport, the only one that attracted so much attention it entered into the mid-decade zeitgeist. The rough-hewn guy staring under the hood of your car, the dedicated mom driving your kid to school, the prudent banker approving your loan, the temptress turning heads with her suspiciously taut architectonics -- they all knew American Pharoah and marveled that he seemed to do everything so easily. If his story lacked anything, it was drama. Certitude is generally the hallmark of an idiot, and that's especially true at the racetrack, but American Pharoah dressed up reckless certitude so that it looked like wisdom. Even when it was over, even when, after a little breather in the turn, he spurted away in the stretch at Keeneland, you had to wonder what he might have done if ever he had been pushed to the limit of his talents. Then again, Americans love dominant heroes that crush opposition. And they loved American Pharoah.
And so the Associated Press had to admit, if somewhat reluctantly, that American Pharoah was the sports story of the year. Not even Jordan Speith, whose career had a similar trajectory, could keep pace with the champion. Ronda Rousey, an intriguing gamine who combined a wanta-go-on-a-hayride allure with an explosive penchant for violence, soared in popularity, but then crashed in Australia. The U.S. women's soccer team took a brief hold of the collective imagination, but were quickly forgotten, their victory an afterimage. Russell Wilson threw into traffic while Tom Brady and his Patriots played a sweet-but-familiar tune, Kansas City had barbecue and the Warriors made the NBA look like a playground, but American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years (or 36 years, 11 months and 28 days, to be precise).
That's why the SI snub was so offensive. Ignoring its own poll, SI named Serena Williams its Sportsperson of the Year. She won three-fourths of the tennis Grand Slam, which, yes, is a spectacular accomplishment, but it's hardly unique. Steffi Graf -- who, by the way, was never named Sportsperson of the Year -- swept the Grand Slam plus Olympic Gold in 1988 and then won three-fourths of the Grand Slam on four occasions, the most recent being in 1996. But no horse in 37 years had swept a Triple Crown, and no horse ever had swept the Triple Crown and then won the richest race in North America, the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Anyway, American Pharoah was just what fans needed in 2015 to take their collective mind off the chronic ineptitude and rampaging divisiveness that infect the sport. Will there be another American Pharoah, another Triple Crown winner? Yes, and probably soon. But not in 2016. No, in the coming year, horse racing will revert to its default setting of craziness and dissension punctuated by some spectacular and memorable performances on the racetrack.
On the second day of the new year, the trek begins. Bird of Trey upsets Flexibility in the Jerome to put himself on the road to the Triple Crown, and if he follows the trail all the way to Churchill Downs, the Irony Meter will explode like a tomato in a microwave: for Trainer John Servis, who fell just short of guiding a swift chestnut through a sweep of the jewels in 2004, will return to the Derby with a son of Birdstone, who, of course, caught Smarty Jones in the final yards of the Belmont Stakes. Dortmund, aka the Sasquatch of the San Gabriel Mountains, holds off California Chrome to win the San Pasquel at Santa Anita. A day after winning the "Best Looking Guy on the Beach" Award, Mohaymen wins the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Breeding season begins, and a dalliance with American Pharoah goes for $200,000. Charlatans and opportunists also try to capitalize on the great horse. A company based in Taiwan offers prefabricated pyramid-shaped barns for "all of America's pharaohs," an off-off-off Broadway production called "A Pharoah Pharce" depicts the champion as a singing horse who'd rather serenade phillies than race until forced to save his owner from economic ruin, and even though he couldn't pick American Pharoah out of a lineup of whippets, a well-connected flimflammer and provocateur comes out with an unofficial biography of the Triple Crown winner. Itsaknockout wins the Donn Handicap. Nyquist wins the San Vicente in his seasonal debut. Gov. Greg Abbott appoints televangelist Joel Osteen and country music singer Miranda Lambert to the Texas Racing Commission, which immediately repeals its rules regulating historical racing. That clears the way for the legislature to release the funding necessary for racing to continue in the state. But there's a problem: All the horsemen and horses have left. Mohaymen wins the Fountain of Youth.
For comparing the presidential race to a horse race, Fareed Zakahria apologizes to the sport. "A horse race can be uplifting, exhilarating and even defining," he says on CNN, "but rarely can the political process be any of those things." California Chrome beats Effinex to win the world's richest race in Dubai. Synchrony wins the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Dortmund takes the Santa Anita Handicap, and Mor Spirit the San Felipe. As a write-in candidate, American Pharoah wins the Arizona and Utah Republican presidential primaries, prompting Zakahria to say, "I wish it were a horse race." Gun Runner sticks his nose in front at the wire to defeat Exaggerator and win the Louisiana Derby.
Responding to polls that show American Pharoah is the new leader for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump boasts, "If I had a stud fee, it would be more than $200,000. I'll tell ya that much. That I know for sure." Gift Box runs by Airoforce and Nyquist in the stretch to win the Florida Derby. Conquest Big E and Unbridled Outlaw finish in a dead heat while winning the Blue Grass Stakes. Mohaymen wins the Wood Memorial over Bird of Trey. Leading from start to finish and in hand at the wire, Songbird romps the Santa Anita Oaks. Mor Spirit finishes first in the Santa Anita Derby, but is disqualified for interference in the stretch and placed second, behind I Will Score. Bob Baffert, the trainer of Mor Spirit, says, "For five minutes I thought we won; now I know how Miss Colombia felt." In Hot Springs, Ark., in the Racing Festival of the South, Stellar Wind wins the Apple Blossom, and Keen Ice the Oaklawn Handicap. Knight's Key takes the Arkansas Derby. Lone Star Park is unable to open for lack of entries.
Lady Eli, the unbeaten filly whose 2015 campaign was cut short by laminitis, returns with an allowance victory at Churchill Downs In the first meeting of these two sensational fillies, Carina Mia edges out Songbird to win the Kentucky Oaks, with Cathryn Sophia third. A furor erupts when somebody notices that in the Pharaohs' Dynasties, a set of playing cards being sold through Derby City Novelties, Ptolemy XIV is portrayed as the King of Diamonds and Cleopatra as the Queen of Diamonds while American Pharoah a lowly Jack. "That's an insult," said Ahmed Zayat. "American Pharoah should be a pair of aces." Mor Spirit wins the 142nd Kentucky Derby, giving Baffert his fifth victory in the race; Gift Box finishes second, with Knight's Key third. Gun Runner uses a perfect ground-saving trip to win the Preakness.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces he'll be happy to present the trophy if American Pharoah wins the Triple Crown again. Conquest Enforcer wins the Queen's Plate. Hundreds of brain-toasted PETA protestors wearing nothing but "We Feel his Pain" T-shirts featuring an image of 1960s sitcom star Mr. Ed try to block the entrances to Belmont Park on Belmont Stakes Day. Post time for the first race is delayed an hour while NYRA President Chris Kay meets with them and negotiates a settlement: Kay agrees to install misting fans in all the stalls. Runhappy romps in the Met Mile, winning by five lengths. And Unbridled Outlaw wins the Belmont Stakes.
Europeans sweep the Belmont Derby and Oaks. After joint meetings involving the Reorganization Board, the Franchise Oversight Board and the Gaming Commission, Chris Kay announces that concession prices at Saratoga will double to pay for all the new misting fans.
Saying it has received thousands of complaints from fans about the cost of concessions and picnic tables, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau shuts down Saratoga pending an investigation. PETA thanks its members for sending thousands of complaints about Saratoga to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Andy Serling accepts a job as host of the "Late Show," replacing Stephen Colbert. "But that's only until Saratoga reopens," says the popular handicapper. Saratoga reopens just in time for Gift Box to win the Travers. Although he isn't exactly welcomed with what would be described in cliched corners as "open arms," Steve Asmussen proudly accepts his place in the Hall of Fame.
NYRA officials announce that horses racing on Lasix will carry four more pounds than horses racing without the medication. Trainer Aidan O'Brien ships 20 horses from Ireland to Franklin, Ky., for the short Kentucky Downs season, where purses have soared to $1.4 million a day. Cathryn Sophia wins the Cotillion and Conquest Big E the Pennsylvania Derby.
The Breeders' Cup announces that its championship event will go to Churchill Downs in 2018 and to Belmont Park in 2019. But the big news this month comes from Frank Stronach, who says he has "horse racing's back." Stronach, in a joint venture with the NTRA, will open a summer camp for "little handicappers," ages 10 to 16. "It will be a great place to learn math, social skills and horse racing all at the same time," Stronach says. Mor Spirit, Stellar Wind, Runhappy, Lady Eli, Conquest Big E, Nickname, Songbird and Airoforce all win preps for the Breeders' Cup.
And during the sport's championship gala at Santa Anita, Stellar Wind wins the Distaff, Lady Eli the Filly and Mare Turf and Conquest Enforcer the Mile. But it's the Classic that provides the fireworks. In a three-horse photo and a monumental upset, Noble Bird narrowly defeats Dortmund and Runhappy, catching them on the wire, with favored Mor Spirit fourth. PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, who has the only winning Pick Six ticket, announces she's retiring from the organization she founded so that she can devote herself to writing Broadway musicals making contact with extraterrestrial life.