12/23/2015 1:10PM

Year in review: American Pharoah becomes the one

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John Bambury
American Pharoah becomes the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown.

Shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 6, American Pharoah bounded through the stretch at Belmont Park, the deafening roar of the crowd of nearly 90,000 joyfully, cathartically celebrating the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Racing had waited a long, long time for such a moment, some 37 years, since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978. To put that time frame in perspective, consider that 1978 is the year that actors Rachel McAdams, Zoe Saldana, and Andy Samberg were born. That is the year that Woody Hayes was fired as football coach at Ohio State. “Annie Hall” was named best picture. Dianne Feinstein was the mayor of San Francisco. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David accord. And Yankee Bucky Dent hit a home run that forever earned him a pejorative middle name from Red Sox fans. All that seems so long ago because it was.

In the nearly four decades between Affirmed and American Pharoah, 13 horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. All but one made it to the Belmont. Those 12 all lost, including, just one year prior, California Chrome.

But then came American Pharoah. As track announcer Larry Collmus so appropriately put it in the final yards of the Belmont, he was “finally the one” – the one who could indeed win three races at three tracks in three different states at three different distances in the space of five weeks.

For years, the distances and spacing of the Triple Crown races had been debated more than Obamacare. Was the series becoming too difficult to win? Should there be more time between races? Should the distances of the races be altered?

Fortunately, the series was not tweaked. Had it been, no one would have ever known for certain if American Pharoah could have won the Triple Crown under the same demands made of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed in the 1970s. There always would have been that doubt. Instead, there is no doubt. American Pharoah showed that the Triple Crown is achievable, but only for the very best of the best. It’s not easy, nor should it be. But oh how satisfying it is when a horse pulls it off.

American Pharoah was, as trainer Bob Baffert said, “the perfect racehorse.” When he reached his cruising speed, American Pharoah had an efficiency of motion that allowed him to effortlessly cover vast ground with every stride – like the Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt. He used that high cruising speed to run his rivals into the ground, with his lone loss during the year a tough-luck second in the Travers. Yet that fierce, competitive spirit on the track was matched by a sweet demeanor off the track. American Pharoah acted like a house pet who could curl up in your lap, and that allowed fans to get closer to him than the average racing colt.

“For him, it’s easy. He’s Mr. Chill,” Baffert said after his career finale, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “What he did I can’t do with other horses. He’s so special. That’s why I’ve been able to share him with everybody.”

Everybody. Everywhere. Though based in California, American Pharoah traveled all year for his races – to Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey. He brought out huge crowds just to watch him train at Monmouth Park prior to the Haskell and at Saratoga the day before the Travers. He never raced at Del Mar this year, but he trained there all summer, and his workouts became must-see events. American Pharoah was paraded at Churchill Downs one week after he won the Triple Crown and at Del Mar on the final weekend of the summer meet. And he made the perfect exit in the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a popular runaway victory in front of an appreciative crowd in the cradle of horse country.

“He went out in style,” said his owner and breeder, Ahmed Zayat.

A steady parade of celebrities – including quarterback Drew Brees and rock star Richie Sambora – came to Baffert’s Del Mar barn to have their picture taken with American Pharoah. Baffert let a throng of journalists surround American Pharoah and touch him the morning after the Belmont Stakes, and he did the same thing at Keeneland the day after the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with a couple hundred fans and journalists reaching out as though they were at Lourdes.

Baffert and everyone surrounding American Pharoah on a daily basis seemed to intuitively sense what the moment required. Assistant Jim Barnes, exercise rider Jorge Alvarez, and groom Eduardo Luna all were eager to show off American Pharoah whenever they could. Zayat and his son and racing manager, Justin, engaged fans through their Twitter accounts. Martin Garcia was a team player, working American Pharoah prior his races before yielding to Victor Espinoza on race day.

Racing so far has presented American Pharoah’s team with the Mr. Fitz Award, presented by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters for “typifying the spirit of racing,” and the Big Sport of Turfdom Award, presented by the Turf Publicists of America for helping to promote the sport. American Pharoah also was voted the Vox Populi Award winner by fans. More hardware will come their way at the Eclipse Awards, for at the least American Pharoah will be Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male, and Baffert, Espinoza, and the Zayats all figure to have significant support in their respective categories.

But the true significance of American Pharoah was how much his Triple Crown win allowed racing to cross over to popular culture. Espinoza was a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” made multiple appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” presented at the CMT Music Awards, won an award presented by Univision Deportes, and, in the most American way one can be deemed important, became tabloid fodder.

Baffert was honored by the March of Dimes as its sportsman of the year and by his alma mater, the University of Arizona, during a football game. Baffert got a sponsorship with Burger King at the Belmont, then turned around and divvied up $200,000 among four racing-related charities – the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund, California Retirement Management Account, Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and Old Friends. Similarly, Espinoza, who had a sponsorship with Monster Energy drink, donated his share of his Belmont riding fee to City of Hope, which he has quietly supported for years.

American Pharoah made the cover of Sports Illustrated following the Belmont and was a considered a finalist for the magazine’s year-end award, which went to Serena Williams as Sportsperson of the Year.

It was all part of a year in which racing’s biggest events got bigger. There was a record crowd at the Kentucky Derby and a record crowd for the Preakness. And who knows what the Belmont crowd might have been had the attendance not been capped?

Yes, American Pharoah was the story of 2015, but there were many other significant performances. In California, Beholder became the first female to win the Pacific Classic, with a tour de force at Del Mar. Tepin, in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and Found, in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, also scored significant victories against males.

Honor Code unleashed terrific stretch drives to win the Met Mile on the Belmont undercard and to run down Liam’s Map in the Whitney at Saratoga. Liam’s Map subsequently overcame a nightmarish trip to win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Javier Castellano won the Met Mile, Whitney, BC Dirt Mile, and 14 other Grade 1 races during a year that saw him shatter the record for single-season earnings by a jockey. Heading into the final days of the year, his mounts had won nearly $28 million.

Tonalist, the 2014 Belmont winner, won the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second straight year, then took the Cigar Mile. Nyquist and the filly Songbird both completed undefeated seasons with wins in their respective Breeders’ Cup races for 2-year-olds, and both undoubtedly will be named champion of their division.

Trainer Larry Jones and owner Brereton C. Jones won their third Kentucky Oaks in concert, this time with Lovely Maria, who had given 56-year-old jockey Kerwin Clark his first Grade 1 win four weeks earlier in the Ashland. Hometown hero The Pizza Man scored a popular victory in the Arlington Million, a bright spot in an increasingly trying Chicago racing scene.

International Group 1 success was achieved by Secret Circle in the Dubai Golden Shaheen and by Undrafted in the Diamond Jubilee at Royal Ascot, after which trainer Wesley Ward and his family got to meet the queen of England.

Even the best success, though, was sometimes overrun by hard feelings. Runhappy won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, then a day later his trainer, Maria Borell, was fired. The owners of California Chrome, the 2014 Horse of the Year, had a falling out over his management, which saw California Chrome sent to England for an intended start at Royal Ascot following his second-place finish in the Dubai World Cup. He has not raced since.

California Chrome is on the way back, though, as is – almost miraculously – the sensational turf filly Lady Eli, who suffered from a bout of laminitis at midyear.

Track announcer Trevor Denman, who is as beloved in California as Tom Durkin was in New York, decided to leave his post at Santa Anita, though he will still work at Del Mar. No one influenced the current generation of race-callers more than Denman, whose presence on these shores more than 30 years ago began a transformation from track announcers who described races like chart callers to those who, as he put it, painted a word picture of the action.

Atlantic City Race Course became the latest track to close as the sport’s consolidation continued. TVG bought and merged with HRTV.

The Hall of Fame welcomed jockeys Chris Antley and Vincent Powers, trainer King Leatherbury, and the horses Lava Man, Xtra Heat, and Billy Kelly.

A pair of Hall of Famers who were beloved legends, Allen Jerkens and John Nerud, died, and even though both had long, rich lives, it still seemed all too soon, their generosity and spirit impossible to equal.

Many other prominent racing personalities also died, including jockeys Weldon Cloninger Jr., Jill Jellison, and Jerry Lambert; trainers Leo Azpurua Sr., Spanky Broussard, Wally Dollase, Leonard Dorfman, Jerry Dutton, Chay Knight, Robert Lake, Mike Mitchell, William Morey Jr., Norman MacDonald, Richard Mulhall, Sandy Shulman, and Mary Lou Tuck; owners and breeders Howard Bender, Herb Elkins, Bud Johnston, Frank Lyons Jr., Don McNeil, Jerre Paxton, Don Sucher, and Dick Van Patten; officials and executives Gelo Hall, Shawn Hurwitz, Ray Muniz, William Thayer, and Herbert Tyner; journalists and broadcasters Logan Bailey, Jack Disney, Dan Farley, Bill Garr, Stan Hochman, Anne Lang, Richard McCarthy, Lou Riggs, and Steve Terpevich; publicists Ed Lewi and Ed Seigenfeld; track superintendent Joe King; photographer Dan Farrell; linemaker Don LaPlace; horse transport executive Dave Clark; horsemen’s advocate Keith Gee; bloodstock agent Richard Lossen; and jockey agent Colin Wick.

On the international front, Australian trainer Bart Cummings, British jockey Pat Eddery, and BBC journalist Peter O’Sullevan – all greats at their craft – also died.

It was a particularly gut-wrenching year for equine fatalities, with 2015 Grade 1 winners Rock Fall, Shared Belief, and Talco all having their lives suddenly cut short. The popular international stars Brown Panther and Red Cadeaux suffered fatal injuries, as did active stakes-class runners Conquest Two Step, Diversy Harbor, Gimme Da Lute, Happy My Way, Pure Tactics, Shore Runner, Sky Ring, Tacticus, and the champion steeplechaser Divine Fortune.

Former runners or stallions who died included Cee’s Tizzy, Concern, Creator, Green Desert, Horse Chestnut, Ogygian, Scat Daddy, Sharp Humor, Sky Classic, Smart Strike, The Tin Man, Thunder Rumble, Valid Expectations, Wildcat Heir, Willcox Inn, Williamstown, Wiseman’s Ferry, and Yes It’s True. The champion mares Smuggler and Soaring Softly died, as did Keeper Hill, a winner of the Kentucky Oaks.