LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sixty miles from Churchill Downs, American Pharoah lives in palatial peace. He resides in a stone barn, on a 2,000-acre breeding estate called Ashford Stud. Beautiful, rolling bluegrass hills surround him. It is archetypal good Kentucky living, complete with a country twist on the town’s name: Versailles (pronounced ver-SALES), which sounds nothing like its French inspiration.
In 2015, American Pharoah became horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Even now, as the 142nd Kentucky Derby commences Saturday and starts a fresh pursuit of the crown, Pharoah is still the star of the sport. His shadow extends 60 miles. You could call it a hangover, but how can you talk about hangovers when the celebration hasn’t ended?
This is wonderful, yet strange. For the first time since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978, you’re left to ask an interesting question: Now what?
The Triple Crown always has been an enormous feat; just 12 horses have accomplished it. But in the gap between Affirmed and American Pharoah, it took on a mythical level of difficulty. It seemed as if horses weren’t built to win three grand races in five weeks anymore. The schedule was debated. Training methods were scrutinized. Breeding practices were criticized.
When Barbaro, the promising 2006 Kentucky Derby champion, shattered his leg two weeks later during the Preakness Stakes, the harsh reality of the sport — the danger of powerful, 1,000-pound animals running on such thin legs — came into greater focus. The past 37 years presented moments of conflict about whether the Triple Crown was even worth it.
But the chase kept bringing people back. During the drought, 13 horses won the Derby and Preakness Stakes before losing or not competing in the Belmont Stakes, the crown’s final leg. The chase had its thrilling moments. Silver Charm lost a close one in the Belmont in 1997. The next year, a photo finish was required to determine that Real Quiet had lost by a nose. And the next year, in 1999, Charismatic finished third and suffered a bone fracture trying to win the Triple Crown.
Everyone who loves horse racing probably has a favorite “almost” thoroughbred. Mine was Smarty Jones, who lost the Belmont by one length to Birdstone. As a native Kentuckian who has been to many Derbys and follows the sport casually, I thought Smarty Jones was the superhorse of my lifetime. If he couldn’t win all three, I figured I’d never experience one.
When Affirmed became a legend in 1978, I was just shy of four months old. I used to joke that the next Triple Crown winner would come in the final four months of my life. After American Pharoah pulled it off last June, let’s just say I spent the ensuing months obeying all traffic signals and looking both ways before crossing the street. Eleven months have passed now. I’ve stopped tiptoeing around.
It will be interesting to evaluate whether Pharoah can create any prolonged increase in interest in the sport. Some early returns are promising; we’ll see whether that’s sustainable. But in terms of how the public perceives greatness, it’s not too early to consider the reaction to this year’s Derby horses and realize that standards have been raised.
The overall field is considered merely so-so. But the favorite, Nyquist, is unbeaten but definitely racing in American Pharoah’s shadow. In the past, an undefeated colt would generate tremendous buzz and hope for a Triple Crown. But Nyquist is being regarded as merely a good horse. He’s a 3-1 favorite, so it’s not like his trainer, Doug O’Neill, can claim disrespect. But now that you’ve seen a Triple Crown winner again, you aren’t as impressed with Nyquist’s 7-0 record. His Beyer Speed Figures are merely okay. O’Neill has a long history of medication-related offenses, including a 45-day suspension in 2014 that forced him to miss the Breeders’ Cup.
O’Neill, who is polite, mild-mannered and professional in interviews, also won the 2012 Derby with I’ll Have Another, who then also took the Preakness. The horse was scratched from the Belmont because of a tendon issue. That was also the year that New York racing officials detained all the Belmont horses in a barn before the race, an act that many still believe was taken because of O’Neill.
So there is some polarity in Nyquist’s tale. And O’Neill doesn’t expect an easy victory.
“With a lot of these horses, you’re splitting hairs on talent,” he said.
On Saturday, Nyquist and the rest of the field aren’t chasing American Pharoah. Winning the Triple Crown requires him to beat the best three-year-olds in 2016, not the best of all time. Or perhaps one of the 19 other contenders peaks in time to add some intrigue this spring. For many, Pharoah seems like a once-in-a-lifetime champion. But history has given us several clusters of Triple Crown winners. Just because we had to wait 37 years for Pharoah doesn’t mean we’ll wait another 37 years.
Would back-to-back crowns be too soon? The American Pharoah reverence is still in its promise. Are you ready to celebrate another great one?
This much is certain: I won’t be joking about my demise in the months after the next Triple Crown winner. No way. The sport can take as much or as little time as it needs.