The median age in America is 36.8 years. Most Americans, in other words, by a narrow but meaningful majority, were't born when Affirmed swept the gaudy jewels -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont -- of the 1978 Triple Crown. As such, most Americans had never seen a Triple Crown winner and had only heard about such a racehorse as existing in some foggy past. For many, a Triple Crown winner had become some sort of mythological or fanciful creature, confined to film, literature and imagination, and not much unlike a unicorn, a jabberwocky or a thestral.
American Pharoah changed all that. He restored greatness to horse racing. That, more than anything, is his legacy.
An engrossed nation not only saw him, with the mythology suddenly becoming bone and muscle and sinew, but also reveled in his outrageous superiority. From Arkansas to Kentucky to New York, American Pharoah set off dopamine bombs and unhinged jaws. Not even the specters of the past could outrun him, nor in the end could the fears for the future. He won the Triple Crown, he won the Breeders' Cup Classic, and on Saturday night in Florida, he won horse racing's highest award, the golden Eclipse. In a unanimous vote of media members and racing associations, American Pharoah was named the 2015 Horse of the Year.
It could not have been otherwise. After winning America's most famous race, sweeping the sport's legendary series and then romping in the country's richest race, American Pharoah set a single-season earnings record of $8,288,800. But victorious superiority wasn't the source of his charisma -- or it wasn't only that. American Pharoah won with a graceful nonchalance that hadn't been seen on the racetrack in years. He took the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths, and the Preakness by seven. He moved so effortlessly and won so easily that it hardly seemed real; it seemed staged. After each win, you almost expected some slick director wearing a beret and jodhpurs to jump up and shout "cut" into a megaphone.
In watching and following their favorite sports, fans search relentlessly for greatness, hoping to see it made vivid. That's their quest: to share in the moment of greatness realized and then possess an inviolable image they can carry with them as a reminder of excellence and achievement. But many had begun to regard a Triple Crown sweep as an anachronistic and impossible achievement and so had suggested changing the series. Since Zenyatta's retirement in 2010, casual sports fans had to have been largely disappointed when looking to horse racing for greatness.
Since then, many of the best horses racing in America, such as Havre de Grace and Wise Dan, defined themselves in esoteric or specialized terms that eluded general understanding, or they gave their best performances on inconspicuous stages. But American Pharoah changed all that. "He brought in new fans and put the sport on the front page," Bob Baffert said of the horse he guided through an historic campaign. Baffert was also honored Saturday with the Eclipse Award as the sport's outstanding trainer. "America fell in love with him," he said of the horse.
Even casual sports fans found inspiration in American Pharoah. Thousands of people turned out just to watch him go through routine gallops at Saratoga and Monmouth Park. He was, after all, a creature that had not been seen for 37 years, a Triple Crown winner, horse racing's 12th. Then he became a unique Triple Crown winner, the first to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. That there was no Breeders' Cup in 1978, that no Classic culmination was even possible for Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed only substantiated American Pharoah's position at the forefront of the sport's modern era, and his unique accomplishment instantly became known as racing's Grand Slam.
"It was all about making history," Baffert said of the great champion's 2015 campaign.
It's probably impossible to measure American Pharoah's impact on the sport. But try to imagine 2015 without him. After the first three months of the year, the handle, or wagering, on American racing was down more than five percent from 2014. Then everything changed. When American Pharoah put on that dazzling display at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, something quite extraordinary was at hand.
Being there at Oaklawn -- that's what it must have been like to be courtside in Chicago when Michael Jordan made his debut for the Bulls in 1984. When he sprinted the length of the court, dribbling behind his back and then leaped for the basket while extending a long arm for an effortless layup, clearly something quite extraordinary was at hand. Like Jordan, American Pharoah seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in the air. They touched the ground and quickly went airborne again. That was the key to American Pharoah's grace and stride. It's unlikely any other horse ever had so many photographs taken with all four of his feet off the ground.
By the end of the year, the handle on American racing not only recovered but increased slightly. Was it all because of American Pharoah? Possibly. If so, will his impact be confined to that sensational campaign that trilled the nation's spine?
That's the looming question. Only racing can supply an answer. Can the sport capitalize on American Pharoah's legacy and accomplishments? At the end of the year, he stood alongside Jordan Spieth and Serena Williams in the nation's esteem, with their greatness not only vivid but unimpeachable. But American Pharoah's achievement was more significant because he reminded a nation in need of reminding that it can still find greatness at the racetrack. With a succinct sweep of the famous jewels, he restored greatness to a sport in danger of forgetting what it looked like. Then, for modernity, he redefined "Triple Crown winner" by creating the sport's Grand Slam.
The golden Eclipse became the final and appropriate punctuation for a great season and glorious career. But, in truth, American Pharoah was much more than the Horse of the Year.