Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the good things the year has brought us. This year, I have a feeling most horse racing fans are grateful for the same thing: a horse with a misspelled name and a short tail. American Pharoah ended the Triple Crown drought. Those seven words will be his legacy, but it goes beyond that.
In 1998, Victory Gallop beat Real Quiet by a nose in the Belmont Stakes on my birthday. Not the day before, not the day after, but on it. I had fallen hard for horse racing the year before, and watching the Triple Crown come down to a head bob was devastating.
I have vague recollections of my dad trying to cheer me up by explaining just how hard the Triple Crown was to win, and that while Real Quiet had come the closest, no horse had done it in my lifetime. Now, 17 years later, I'm finally thankful for the lesson the racing gods taught me that day.
This year, after the Belmont was over, after the Triple Crown wait was over, I wondered if the noise I heard that day was all in my head. It was the loudest, most joyful eruption you can imagine. The swelling crescendo, the hugs, the tears, the this-is-actually-happening wave of ecstatic disbelief that washed over Belmont Park that day was special.
It also was very real. Friends, colleagues and even American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, have commented on the overwhelming, unforgettable noise.
For all the sunshine and happiness of the Belmont, though, American Pharoah's Preakness was just as unique, although for very different reasons. To say it rained during the race is an understatement. It was a downpour so severe that whispers of, "What are they going to do?" made their way across the grandstand.
What they did was run the race. American Pharoah skipped home in some of the worst racing conditions I have ever witnessed and set himself up for his date with immortality. Although I doubt anyone enjoyed the discomfort of being caught in a thunderstorm, it only adds to the story, and for that I am glad.
Year in and year out people debated if the Triple Crown was too hard, if it should be changed, if we were asking too much. American Pharoah proved without a doubt the answer to all of those questions was no. His hardest race in the series was the Kentucky Derby, and he only improved from there. The racing conditions weren't always perfect, and nothing was handed to him during that five-week span.
American Pharoah did taste defeat after the Triple Crown, finishing second in the Travers behind Keen Ice. It was an oddly run race, and he was a tired horse. I highly doubt history will hold it against him, though, because his victories in the Haskell and Breeders' Cup Classic were just as, if not more, impressive than anything he did during the Triple Crown.
What a terrifying thought for his competition: The horse who did something no other horse had done in 37 years only got better.
Because the Breeders' Cup is when international interests are most likely to run in America, we got to show off our best to the world. The Thursday before the Classic, when American Pharoah was out on Keeneland's training track, a European friend turned to me and said, "He really is magnificent, isn't he?"
The horse's kind temperament and his generous connections also meant fans got unprecedented access to the future Hall of Famer. It was a perfect storm that will have lingering results.
While I am thankful a horse finally won the Triple Crown, I am more thankful for how American Pharoah won it and that he was allowed to race afterward. Simply winning racing's most coveted prize would not have been enough to stop the questions. Winning it with ease and then only improving as the year went on did.
Real Quiet was a Grade 1 winner at 2, 3 and 4, and I often feel he is underappreciated, but if he had won that day in 1998, it would have brought more questions than answers. Both he and Victory Gallop bumped in the stretch. There would have been an inquiry, and if the results stood, which is highly debatable, the race would have an asterisk next to it. Furthermore, Real Quiet, who was also trained by Baffert, did not race again until March 1999. The Triple Crown is hard, and for most horses, it takes all they have.
For American Pharoah, it was a stepping stone. The feeling horse racing fans experienced when he won both the Triple Crown and the Classic was unique. If the Triple Crown had been made easier, its cache would have been diminished, and so would the emotions surrounding it.
It was worth waiting for the right horse. It was worth waiting for American Pharoah. And I'm not just saying that because in a quirk of fate, he won the Belmont on my birthday.
It may have taken 37 years, but thankfully a truly special horse did come along.