07/31/2015 2:16PM

Hovdey: The real thing, in perfect harmony


Americans, bless our tiny attention spans, are always ready to go nuts about something. A bogus plague. A buffoon running for office. A Great White Coward who kills living plush toys for sport.

It is refreshing, therefore, when The Real Deal comes along, when the object of our collective insanity has meat on the bone – especially when the feast is served by a racehorse.

I was at Santa Anita when the infield fans would unfurl their “Go Cougar Go” banners in the early 1970s in celebration of the Big Cat, whose high-headed, scalding stretch runs won nearly every major California event, turf or dirt.

I elbowed my way through the crowds who came in droves to cheer John Henry, their working-class hero, as he threw his body down time after time, for six solid years, the gift that kept on giving.

I witnessed the giddy “Cigar for President” campaign of the 1996 election year when he barnstormed far and wide, from Dubai to Boston, glaring at the world in defiance with that wild, white-rimmed eye.

And I watched Zenyatta, an unlikely mountain of a Thoroughbred, slowly draw the game to her embrace through the dramatic repetition of an impossible script that read, “You go ahead. I’ll catch up later.”

Speculation has it that the American Pharoah phenomenon (there, a real “ph” word) would not be nearly as intense were it not for the world of social media in which he has flourished. That may be true. Certainly a healthy chunk of the body count at Monmouth Park on Sunday to watch American Pharoah run in the Haskell Invitational will have been lured by a constant drumbeat of tweets, posts, snaps, and chatter alerting the citizenry that he is in town for the day and must be seen to be believed.

It would not be happening with the same intensity, though, if Easy Goer, Touch Gold, Victory Gallop, and Birdstone had not chosen the Belmont Stakes to run the best race of their young lives to beat Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Smarty Jones out of their chances at a Triple Crown. As a result, the pressure from 37 years of pent-up Triple Crown anxiety has blown the lid off any rational assessment of American Pharoah’s achievement, rendering him far more famous for what he did rather than who he is.

He is, in fact, a singular specimen, ridiculously ideal by many of the measures cherished by the wise old hands who were first to extol his virtues. The package is plain, as far as that goes – a ripe mahogany with dark trim and the faintest suggestion of a white whorl between the eyes – but the proportions balance as if painted by Rembrandt. The expanse between his kind eyes is broad, while his handsome ears twitch with curiosity, like twin birds on a living perch.

At rest, American Pharoah is untroubled by the world around him. He does not spook or fret. If there is a rare protest, it will come in the form of impatience at having to wait until well past 7 a.m. for his daily exercise, when other horses in the Bob Baffert stable already have been let out to play.

The cynics among racetrackers will claim, with some justification, that you could lead over any unmarked bay colt wearing an American Pharoah saddle towel and the crowd would go crazy. Once the imposter gallops off, though, I’m not so sure the ruse would hold, because if American Pharoah has contributed one thing of lasting value to the public’s perception of the racehorse, it is an appreciation of the Thoroughbred in motion and how a measure of perfection can be achieved through a happy marriage of conformation and physiology.

By now, even the most casual American Pharoah fan can pick him out of a morning herd, gliding along at a two-minute lick, dismissing the ground beneath him as a minor inconvenience. Then in the afternoon, when the game’s afoot, American Pharoah merely increases the tempo of his gallop, lengthens his stride accordingly, and makes everything look much easier than it should.

This has a disheartening effect on the opposition, which is what probably will happen again on Sunday at Monmouth Park. And yet, because he is the world’s most valuable stallion-in-waiting, every step American Pharoah takes these days is a roll of the dice for his owners, the Zayat family, and his ultimate caretakers at Coolmore.

So it is okay, at least until the rhythm of the race unfolds, to wonder what might happen. After all, this will be the first time a freshly minted American Triple Crown winner has performed in public since Aug. 8, 1978, when Affirmed had his hands full beating Sensitive Prince in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga. It also will be American Pharoah’s first race in 57 days, which must seem like an eternity to a horse who raced three times in 36 days this spring.

American Pharoah’s final round of training at Del Mar featured four public works in 17 days and the usual round of visitors clamoring for the Pharoah Photo. It has become a running narrative around the Baffert barn that assistant Jimmy Barnes says no to the ninth request of the day and then Bob says yes, because we all know that if we don’t like Mom’s answer, we always can count on Dad.

The day before American Pharoah was scheduled to leave, another group came around, kids and grown-ups acting like kids in the presence of the Triple Crown champ. They got their snaps and a story to tell, after which Baffert had to face Barnes once again.

“Ridiculous,” said Jimmy.

“No, it’s a good omen,” replied Bob. “One of them was named Haskell.”