As 2015 draws to a close, The Washington Post reflects on the figures that commanded the spotlight. These are the names that most impacted their sport and the sports world as a whole … for better and for worse.

To grasp American Pharoah in 2015, we ought to recollect California Chrome in 2014. We should remember how that gem from the thrifty side of the breeding tracks rose to charm that whole spring, to win the Kentucky Derby, win the Preakness and then fade into a customary Belmont Stakes sigh — a dead heat for fourth place — whereupon the estimable reporter Kenny Rice took an NBC microphone to a pertinent area and came across a mighty rant.

The rant streamed out of Steve Coburn, California Chrome’s co-owner. As Coburn ranted, he sounded like all the male humans through time who, having seen their team lose, quickly spot the invisible presence of injustice. He also represented something else: a rational, frustrated thought that sparked another turn of an American discussion.

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Hadn’t the very concept of the Triple Crown rotted into obsolescence in this century of diminished equine stamina? Shouldn’t we change how we do it?

Nobody had won it in the 36 springs since Affirmed in 1978. Thirteen horses in that span had won the first two legs. Twelve of those had started the Belmont. One, Real Quiet in 1998, had lost by a nose. One, Smarty Jones in 2004, had gone from top-of-the-stretch elation to end-of-the-stretch dejection.

Worse for Coburn, his charismatic horse had fallen to a common ploy, the fresh winner who joins the Triple Crown process only at the Belmont on-ramp. In those five weeks, California Chrome had won two grueling races against the best uninjured 3-year-olds. The three horses who finished ahead of him in the Belmont had combined to participate in one Kentucky Derby and zero Preaknesses. The winner, Tonalist, had become the fifth of the 12 spoilers since 1978 to race neither of the first two grinds.

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“It’s not fair to these horses that are running their guts out,” Coburn ranted. “This is a cowards’ way out. If you’ve got a horse that earns points, that runs in the Kentucky Derby, those horses should be the only ones who should run in all three races.” He also said, “I’ll never see, and I’m 61 years old, another Triple Crown winner in my lifetime, because of the way they do this.”

Another Triple Crown win would happen roughly never.

Coburn spoke on June 7, 2014. By then, a colt foaled in Kentucky in February 2012 already bounced around at age 2. That colt, American Pharoah — son of Pioneer of the Nile, grandson of Empire Maker, great-grandson of Unbridled — would hone a stride that seemed more like floating. He would debut at Del Mar merely 63 days after Coburn spoke. He would finish fifth, before trainer Bob Baffert removed his blinkers.

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Then he would win six straight across eight months and two weeks, the fifth in a mean Derby stretch and the sixth in a commanding Preakness. A seasoned private clocker and bloodstock agent from California, Gary Young, would watch him before the Kentucky Derby, proclaim him possibly the best horse in 35 years and drag out the revered American proper nouns “Michael Jordan” — because of how the colt floated.

Whatever. We had heard big praise before. We had heard the Belmont stretches when the New York noise built to a din and ebbed to a murmur. We had heard Coburn’s wizened words. American Pharoah faced seven rivals in the third leg, more than such hallowed names as Whirlaway (three), Secretariat (four) and Affirmed (four). None of the seven had run both the first two races. Only one had bothered with the Preakness. No horse since Afleet Alex in 2005 had won the Belmont Stakes after even so much as participating in both the Derby and Preakness.

“Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Are you mad at fresh horses taking [time] off and now coming in?’” Ahmed Zayat, American Pharoah’s Egypt-born, New Jersey-based owner said. “No! I’m a competitor. He has to earn it. We’re talking about defining greatness, right? He’s got to earn it.”

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Said Jerry Crawford, owner of rival Keen Ice, “Our responsibility, the other horses in the race, is to be true to history, and true to prior winners and, for that matter, true to American Pharoah. So if he wins the Triple Crown, everyone will know he did that under the most challenging circumstances possible.”

Saturday, June 6, 2015, which came 37 yawning years after June 10, 1978, and one year after another bummer that said never, wound up sunny. By the early evening, the 90,000 spectators were set to witness. At the top of the stretch, that noted harbor of optimism and pessimism, American Pharoah led.

Through the stretch as the roar built, he led by more.

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At the wire as the roar stayed, he led by still more, by five-and-a-half lengths, a feat so rare that you might even say he floated above never.

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The Washington Post’s Sports Figures of the Year

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