Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Thirty-seven years

I turned two months old on the day Affirmed won the Belmont and secured his Triple Crown in 1978. Obviously, I was too young to even comprehend what a horse was, let alone what Affirmed accomplished that day when he out-dueled Alydar to the wire. As a child, I cut my literary teeth on C. W. Anderson's horse stories, reveling in his tales of the glory days of Man O' War, Whirlaway, Citation, and Native Dancer. I watched my first Kentucky Derby in 1984---Swale was both my first love and my first heartbreak. I have been a racing fan as long as I can remember, and for so many years, I have waited and watched and hoped that I too would have my chance to witness a Triple Crown.

Naturally, as an artist as well as a racing fan, Thoroughbreds have been a popular subject for me. I have painted more than 60 racehorses over the years, some of them Triple Crown winners, some of them near misses.
Seattle Slew
I was still too young to appreciate Spectacular Bid and Pleasant Colony's attempts at history in 1979 and 1981, and while I do remember the hoopla surrounding Alysheba's try, Sunday Silence's run at the crown in 1989 is the one that stands out most clearly to me. The week before the Belmont, I was preoccupied with thoughts of how amazing it would be to witness a Triple Crown finally. After all, eleven years had passed, and there had been three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, so surely we were due for one again soon. My fifth grade self would have been shocked to know that not only would Easy Goer upset the Belmont, but that another eight years would pass before any horse would even have a shot at the Triple Crown again. 
Sunday Silence
Easy Goer
I was in college when Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic all tried and came up half a length, a nose, and a length and a three-quarters short three years in succession. In 2002 after moving to Chicago for grad school, I attended my first live race, the Illinois Derby held at the now demolished Sportsmans Park. War Emblem upset the field that day in a run away victory, much as he did a month later in the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness. But he stumbled badly out of the Belmont gate and was never a factor, finishing eighth. Seattle Slew died a few days after the Derby that year, leaving the world without a living (American) Triple Crown winner for the first time.
War Emblem
In 2003, Funny Cide could only manage third behind the mighty, mud-loving Empire Maker (who had been my Derby pick) at a rainy Belmont. Fan favorite Smarty Jones likewise succumbed to a late charge from Birdstone the following year. More than 25 years had now passed, longer than the drought between Citation and Secretariat, and there were rumbles that the series should be changed to allow more time between races or no horse would ever wear the crown again.
Smarty Jones
The parade of misses went on: Big Brown failed to stay in 2008 and was controversially pulled up; I'll Have Another injured a tendon the day before the Belmont in 2012 and was immediately retired; and California Chrome ran gamely but could only manage fourth in 2014. After the race, his owner angrily ranted that it wasn't fair to enter fresh horses and new shooters in the Belmont. He predicted the Triple Crown would never be won in his lifetime because of this. In retrospect, his timing is almost funny.
California Chrome
This year, 2015, began like many others. The Breeders Cup Juvenile winner dropped off the Derby trail early, and there was the usual jumble of sprinters who failed to move forward when the races lengthened in distance. Interesting to me though, were the unusually slow times for the winners in nearly all of the preps leading up to the Derby. The only real standouts in my opinion were a pair of colts trained by Bob Baffert---Dortmund, a strapping chestnut, and American Pharoah, a bob-tailed bay, the Two Year-Old Champ with the misspelled name who had missed the Breeders Cup because of a foot bruise.

American Pharoah had turned in quick times in his two wins as a two year-old, but his three year-old debut over a sloppy track at Oaklawn was slow but dominant. Dortmund meanwhile fired off quick victories in the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby, remaining undefeated as he headed into the Derby. A week after Dortmund's impressive Santa Anita Derby win, Pharoah skipped away from the field of the Arkansas Derby at the top of the stretch to win geared down in a hand ride by 8 lengths. Jockey Victor Espinoza never so much as waved his whip at Pharoah, and the colt floated down the stretch with his ears pricked. I was very impressed, but cautiously so. Plenty of horses have won their last Derby prep in an exciting fashion only to fizzle at Churchill.
Arkansas Derby win (DRF.com photo)
Interestingly, Pharoah did not in fact bring his "super-A" game to the Derby, as Baffert phrased it. The colt was upset by the loud and raucous crowd on the walk over to the paddock, and as others have done before him, he fretted away his energy before the race even started. Nonetheless, Pharoah's B game was good enough, and after stalking the pace early, he gutted out a one length victory over the tough Firing Line and his fading stablemate, Dortmund.
Kentucky Derby victory (Concord Monitor photo)
Going into the Preakness, I was uncertain of Pharoah's chances after such a hard-fought win in the Derby. I worried we'd see another race like Orb's in 2013 where he simply never fired and finished a tired fourth. But then, moments before the post parade, the heaven's opened up and a deluge of almost Biblical proportions fell on Pimlico. The track rapidly became a sea of mud, and water pooled into a small ocean at the rail, right in Pharoah's path where he would break from the 1 hole. Like his grand-sire Empire Maker before him however, Pharoah was a known mudder, and with the right positioning, I thought he suddenly had an excellent chance at adding the Preakness to his resume. Victor gunned him from the gate, dueled briefly with Mr. Z for the lead, and then moved the colt just off the rail onto firmer footing. Pharoah led the procession around the turn and down the backstretch in the driving rain, and while the field tried to make a run at him on the turn, Espinoza asked for another gear, and the plain bay colt obliged with that easy, ground-eating stride of his, winning by an ever-widening 7 lengths. The time was the slowest since Hill Prince had won the Preakness in 1950, but the rain-soaked silks and saddle pad had added 15 pounds to the 126-pound impost Pharoah already carried.
Ears pricked for a very muddy Preakness win (Patrick Smith/Getty images/NPR.org)
And so we headed into the Belmont with a chance at a Triple Crown for the 14th time in 37 years, wondering if maybe this would be the year. I tried not to get my hopes up, to steel myself against the surely inevitable disappointment. Nonetheless, insidious little thoughts crept through my mind---Belmonts are often won by front runners who can dictate the pace; Pharoah is versatile and can run from off the pace or he can set it himself; Belmont is a quirky track, but Pharoah seemed to relish the surface in his exercise gallops; Empire Maker won the Belmont, so maybe Pharoah inherited some of that stamina. Round and round and round it went.

Saturday morning at Belmont dawned with pouring rain. An omen? By the late afternoon though, the track was fast and dry. As the horses were loaded into the starting gate, I thought my heart would pound right out of my chest. Espinoza sent the colt to the lead immediately, and he quickly settled into an easy rhythm, ears pricked and loping along with that smooth, far-reaching stride. When the first quarter flashed up in :24, a tiny corner of my brain began screaming, "Oh my god, he's going to do it!" but I couldn't say it aloud for fear of jinxing him. The half came in a perfect :48 and then three-quarters went in a reasonable 1:13. Victor and Pharoah were setting the perfect, sane pace for a mile and a half race. That excitable, uninhibited part of my brain was jumping up and down and  yelling that as long as the colt could stay the distance, the chance of a Triple Crown was very, very real. But the quarter pole is where the real action usually begins, and I thought I might expire from nerves while the horses swept around the long far turn toward the pole at the top of the stretch.

The other jockeys began to ask their mounts for more as they wheeled out of the turn, and for a moment, it looked like Frosted was going to make a serious challenge. But Victor let his colt out another notch, and Pharoah's lead opened up to three lengths and then four. By that time, I was screaming incoherently. As American Pharoah flashed under the wire five and a half lengths clear of the field as America's long-awaited twelfth Triple Crown winner, I whooped and cried happy tears. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more---euphoria, elation, absolute wonder.

Belmont bliss (si.com photo)
American Pharoah's time of 2:26.65 was the fifth fastest Belmont in history and second only to Secretariat's in terms of Triple Crown winners. His final quarter mile, which he sprinted with apparent ease in :24.32, is the fastest of all the Triple Crown winners. (Secretariat's in comparison was :25 flat, the equivalent of about 3 lengths.)

After the race, I had to watch the replay again (and again and again) as I had shrieked all through the stretch call and had no idea what Larry Collmus said. In the hours after the race, it seemed surreal that at last a twelfth Triple Crown winner had been crowned, but now that a few days have passed, it has slowly sunk in. It's a fantastic feeling. I keep surfing over to Youtube and rewatching the race, and I get choked up hearing, "And here it is! The 37-year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!” I suspect I always will.