I spent most of Sunday watching the replay of American Pharoah’s Belmont tour de force and more significantly relishing the crowd’s reaction to this event each time I saw it. There are multiple Youtube fan perspectives of what they saw and what happened around them during his effortless strides down the lane in which he left the very nice colt Frosted and the others in his dust. Collectively these images and the swelling sound from the stands as his victory became more and more certain capture a jubilation that we rarely allow ourselves or see in others.
Webster’s defines jubilation as “an act of rejoicing; an expression of great joy” and as American Pharoah dispatched his rivals in one of the fastest Belmont’s ever and then was paraded by Victor Espinoza down the length of the stands and finally took his spot in the winner’s circle, we all witnessed and hopefully felt in our homes, backyards, bars – wherever we saw the race – pure jubilation. Was it because the owners of Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew were there and were graciously supportive of having another member in their exclusive Triple Crown club? Was it simply that we have had so many good horses come close, only to be denied in this race and this was the culmination of 37 years of building frustration at the previous thwarted attempts? Was it that the owners and team surrounding the horse were consistently humble and knew enough (or had been coached) to say the right things about the horse, their goals, and what this horse means for racing? Was it that exceptional talent, athleticism, and those at the top of their sport can be awe inspiring? Was it that our post 9/11 society with social media and electronic connectedness that has dehumanized and alienated many finally saw and shared in an event so pure and real that they were stirred to that “expression of great joy?” YES.
There’s a story about famed golfer Jack Nicklaus stating that when he saw Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes, he was alone in his home and he cried tears of joy at what was to his eyes perfection as Secretariat won his Belmont by 31 lengths – this occurred 25 years after the last Triple Crown winner had completed the feat. Mr. Nicklaus himself was close to perfect on many occasions and it has stuck with me that his recognition of that outstanding effort by Secretariat reminds us all that these animals have a connection with humans that can evoke great feeling and emotion. Awe. Happiness. Excitement. . . JUBILATION!
Racing has always offered a product combining the strength and determination of the horse, the athleticism of both horse and rider, as well as the skill and planning of trainers, riders, breeders, and owners. Those who follow the sport appreciate the beauty as well as the risks – and there are risks as any of the participants will attest. Yet, it’s on days like Belmont Saturday, during which we also saw Honor Code with that laid out head in true A.P. Indy tradition win the Metropolitan Mile and many other stakes winners move forward in their respective divisions, that the promise of racing is fulfilled. The card assembled for Belmont Saturday was as strong as any I’ve ever seen – helping prove that horse racing can appeal to both those familiar with and those new to sport.
So what is next for American Pharoah and racing in general? Can the sport build upon the momentum generated by this event four decades in the making? By nature, my response to both would tend toward a more objective – some might say cynical – response, but the joy evoked by this Belmont does not deserve such analysis this close to it. I read one writer’s typical pedantry on Sunday proclaiming that American Pharoah shouldn’t be called great because he’s no Slew, Secretariat or Affirmed – and he’s right, he’s not. He’s the colt who was two year old champion, won with a wide trip in the Derby when he was what I believe to have been a slightly short horse; he’s the horse who skipped over the mud after bulling his way to the lead after a slow start in a rainstorm of biblical proportions in the Preakness; and now he’s the colt who fulfilled a 37 year dream for many racing fans in an overpowering performance in true race-horse time over a field that I believe will win many stakes races in the future. He did it all with consummate ease despite being from a foal crop that was much larger than his predecessors. He is American Pharoah, the horse of this generation – the one those in attendance can relate to and use as their reference point for greatness. He and his accomplishments should not be held in disdain or doubt by middle-aged or older, crotchety horse writers who think what they knew to be great was better. What I saw in the crowd was a response of joy and hope to what they were seeing, not unlike the the nation's response to the singular perfection that Secretariat offered the post Viet Nam and Nixon era America that reveled in and sorely needed to be part of and witness his unfettered brilliance. Today, our country suffers many similar negative experiences in our recent psyche, and we need to celebrate the accomplishment and prowess American Pharoah’s Triple Crown presents.
Will his Triple Crown accomplishment cure cancer, initiate world peace, or negate the ever-present threat of terrorism – all of which sit in the back of our consciousness? Of course not. However, Victor Espinoza and Mr. and Mrs. Baffert are making donations to causes that will help improve the lives of people in our world – so some advances will be made on those fronts. What American Pharoah’s Belmont showed me is that we still collectively can appreciate excellence in its purest form. That horse racing can reach much more of our population than it currently does if its racing product were only better managed. And that people need to allow themselves to simply enjoy the moments that matter – those that are special to us for any reason.
American Pharoah need not run another race to ensure his place in history, though I along with millions of others are eager to see what else he has to show us. His future as a stallion is secure, at least so long as the fickle breeding industry says it is - but he'll be fine for the first few years on that front anyway. The leaders in racing have a confluence of events that make the time ripe to move the sport forward and ensure the next generation of horse racing fans are inspired and their allegiance developed through new technology and a different type of customer service approach than has been demonstrated in the past. This opportunity presents itself solely because of American Pharoah's accomplishment Saturday. We should not fritter away this time with industry infighting and absentee leadership. The sport can be reinvented for this century -- Saturday's jubilation is proof.
All this comes as a result of one horse's deeds. The mind and temperament American Pharoah displayed with throngs around him in the winners’ circle and as he stood between his trainer and jockey while on a shank for the NBC next morning interview, tells me this is one high-quality animal -- that he is more than worthy of our admiration. And, this brings me to where I thought I was going to start: as I watched the race and the fan reaction over and over, I couldn't help thinking about Charlotte’s Web and the messages she wrote to ensure Wilbur was noticed and thought of as the special animal he was. Her words and sentiments fit this horse, while they certainly are not at all needed to save or draw attention to him at this point, but it would be most fitting if the spiders in American Pharoah’s stall were in fact conspiring to leave similar accolades: Some Horse! Terrific! Radiant!
Thank you to American Pharoah and his connections for an outstanding Triple Crown, delivered with humility and generating raucous joy in so many.
Congratulations to all racing fans new and old -- enjoy this time!