By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published June 22, 2015
As the commentator’s voice heaved desperately for air, he yelled with passion and stark excitement, “And down the stretch they come! It’s Go For Gin digging in and holding on! He is going to win the Kentucky Derby!”
I recall it vividly as if only a second has passed. I was sitting before my telly on the first Saturday in May 1994. A few months before, my parents had moved into their own home. It was no Hollywood Hills’ mansion, but it was theirs and they were proud. This was my first Kentucky Derby race live, and the commentator’s words in the closing furlong got me hooked to horse racing like white on rice.
The mere words repeated above are an injustice to the moment. Goosebumps like the Rocky Mountains appeared on the back of my neck. The once curly hairs on my hands stood like soldiers at attention before the Queen. My body seemingly filled and overcome with endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine. Wooo!
The Kentucky Derby is “the most exciting two minutes in sports” for the fans, jockeys, owners, and trainers alike. Even so, winning the American Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes) is the aspiration they all share.
After 21 years and editions of hope and despair, I finally witnessed my first Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. The goosebumps and straightened hairs returned. The body under the bibulous influence of elated hormones was ever-present. Wooo!
For others, as much as 37 years has passed since they have relived such a euphoric moment. Like Affirmed in the 1978 Belmont Stakes, American Pharoah drew the fifth post, and similar to another Triple Crown legend, Secretariat, he led from start to finish (wire-to-wire). American Pharoah produced a fulgurous run and one of the fastest Belmont’s ever.
Statisticians will tell you, of the 12 Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah’s final half-mile and quarter-mile times are outrageous. No horse has finished the race with such vitriolic speed. As the gods will remind us, before we become intoxicated in the present, Secretariat of the 12 has run the entire Belmont faster: only Secretariat.
I’m overjoyed for trainer Bob Baffert, who o’er the years had his fair share of Triple Crown near misses. Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) are the first that spring to mind from my early fixated years. Real Quiet lost the Triple Crown by the smallest margin in history, four inches, or a nose. Another notable mention is War Emblem (2002) who foiled out of the gates at the Belmont and dashed his run to immortality. Likewise, there was Hall of Fame horse Point Given (2001) who faltered in the Derby, but annihilated the fields in the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. This time, though, it all came together for Bob.
Jockey Victor Espinoza, another important cog in this Triple Crown expedition, also had his fair share of near misses. In 2002, he was War Emblem’s jockey when Baffert missed his third attempt at conquering the Belmont Stakes, and with it, the Triple Crown. Similarly, last year, Espinoza rode California Chrome to Kentucky and Preakness victories before succumbing to “The Test of the Champion”, the indomitable mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes. However, Espinoza can now say, the third time is the balm.
After winning the Triple Crown, American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat was quick to remind everyone, “It’s not about any of us. I can sit here for hours and praise the brilliant job that Bob, Victor and the team have done, but at this juncture, it’s really about defining the greatness of American Pharoah.”
Bob concurred similar sentiments when he said, “He’s the one that did it. We were basically just passengers.”
13 ill-fated horses since Affirmed in 1978 dotted their opportunity to be preserved in Memoriam forever. Yet, lucky number 14, American Pharoah shattered the generational curse.
His sire (father’s) lineage traces directly back to the prestigious Darley Arabian, one of the three progenitors of most modern day thoroughbreds. The other two, the majestic Godolphin Arabian and the prepotent Byerley Turk also feature prominently in his pedigree. Godolphin, like Darley, features on his sire side while Byerley Turk features on his dam (mother’s) side.
American Pharoah’s great-great-great-grandfathers include super horse and 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat; 1964 Kentucky and Preakness winner, Northern Dancer; and the sire king of them all, Mr Prospector.
Fascinatingly, the 1970 foaled Mr Prospector has produced descendants who have won 43 legs of the American Triple Crown. Interestingly, the 2015 Belmont Stakes winner was never in doubt, with all eight starters coming from Mr Prospector’s stock.
The three thoroughbred progenitors; speedsters like Mr Prospector; distance super horses like Secretariat and Man O’ War, the greatest American thoroughbreds of all-time, and many others, feature vociferously in American Pharoah’s bloodline. With this infallible genetic blend, unsurprisingly, American Pharoah was the one who compelled a generation to exhale a 37-year held breath for a Triple Crown Champion.
That evening after he won, I found myself simulating the commentary moment when Go For Gin won the 1994 Kentucky Derby. My 3-year-old daughter sat beside me on the floor around the coffee table. We watched the replay on my smartphone, with the sound muted. I supplied the commentary as she watched attentively, absorbing the moment with curious anticipation of the end.
In the last furlong, I hollered, “And down the stretch they come! It’s American Pharoah digging in and pulling away strong! He’s going to win the Triple Crown!” As jockey Espinoza punched the air, I added my little twist, and yelled in true Ric Flair fashion, “What a way to win it. Wooo!”
My daughter looked at me with her full bright brown eyes, amazed at the moment and the history we just shared. She then broke my exhilarated silence and uttered, “Wow Daddy that’s (horse) racing. It’s exciting.”
It seems someone else is now hooked. Cheers American Pharoah!
Until next time…