As he flashed across the finish line at Pimlico on Saturday, all alone, having run a hole in the rain, American Pharoah retraced the steps of the near-immortals who swept the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes nine times in the past 18 years.
Make it 10 times.
Here we go again.
Cue the threadbare stories and the oft-revised charts and the rosy quotes from sage old trainers saying, “This horse, I think he’s real deal. Yep, he’s the one.”
Rinse. Repeat. Store for next year. Or the year after. It’s 50-50 that it will be trotted out again.
The third Saturday of May isn’t Preakness Day. It’s Groundhog Day.
It’s an occasion for horse racing to reconvince itself that déjà vu is actually jamais vu. The rational mind recognizes the scene as oh-so familiar, but that amnesiac precinct where hope springs eternal says, no, this is different. This horse is different. This one can turn the mirage into an oasis.
Maybe he can.
To date, American Pharoah has emphatically stamped himself as the best of his generation. He was voted 2-year-old champion last year and is the leader in the clubhouse for 3-year-old honors this year. He has won six consecutive graded stakes by 30 lengths combined.
He has won on fast tracks, sloppy tracks and Polytrack. He has won in California, Arkansas, Kentucky and Maryland. He’s won with wide trips and rail trips, chasing the pace and setting it.
Noise makes him nervous, but he coped with the madding Derby crowd. Driving rain and gusting winds unsettle man and beast alike, and the torrent that struck Pimlico near post time Saturday provided ready-made excuses for every entrant. American Pharoah didn’t need one. He splashed his way to a seven-length win.
Versatility, adaptability and composure are the marks of an exceptional racehorse. American Pharoah is most assuredly that. But he is not a great racehorse. Not yet anyway.
American Pharoah’s Derby was slow; his Preakness was slower still – the worst time since 1956. In both races, his times for the final quarter-mile were positively glacial. That doesn’t bode well for the Belmont Stakes, where an additional quarter-mile is required.
The Derby and Preakness were not overpowering victories by objective standards. Track conditions contribute to slow times, but the clock never entirely lies, not two races in a row. The Beyer Speed Figures that American Pharoah earned – 105 and 102, respectively – are wholly unremarkable. (Note that Thoro-Graph, which accounts for ground loss, awarded American Pharoah the second-fastest figure since it started charting the Derby in 1982. Its Preakness figures were not available yesterday.)
Yes, American Pharoah annexed the Derby and Preakness in casual fashion, but what did he beat?
It appears that the intelligentsia popped the cork too quickly on this crop of 3-year-olds. They were fast last year and fast this winter, but their brilliance has not translated to the spring classics so far. Firing Line is the only other horse to carry his speed past 1 1/8 miles, but he failed to frank his gritty Derby run in Baltimore. He finished eighth on Saturday, beaten 45 lengths.
Old timers say a tired horse will use a sloppy track as an excuse to quit. The four Derby grads not named American Pharoah finished fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. None will run in the Belmont, their trainers said yesterday.
The winner will be ambushed by a second wave of Derby alums in New York. American Pharoah will be making his fourth start in eight weeks. Three of his prime challengers – Materiality, Carpe Diem and Mubtaahij – will be making their second starts in nine or 10 weeks. Frosted will make his third start in 15 weeks.
It’s not entirely fair, but that’s irrelevant. The Triple Crown isn’t about fairness. It’s about greatness. If American Pharoah can spot his attackers extra rest and extra distance and still prevail, we will witness the first transcendent 3-year-old America has produced in 37 years.
He will be worth the wait. He will redress all the false hopes. He will redeem all the false messiahs.
If he fails, so be it. We will hope again next spring. In an era of grade inflation and a trophy for every kid, the Triple Crown stands apart as an Everest that cannot be reduced or bought or gerrymandered. You either have the goods or you don’t.
Alone in the sporting firmament, the Triple Crown is immune to human touch. It cannot be purchased at auction. It refuses to submit to Mendel’s laws. It bows to the caprice of luck and weather. It cannot be coached, only guided.
It is ruthless and unforgiving. Only extraordinary athletes reach the peak. Joe Flacco can win the Super Bowl and Charl Schwartzel the Masters but no equivalent horse wins the Triple Crown.
We’re unlikely to see the prize won on June 6 at Belmont Park. Odds are, American Pharoah is not different. Odds are, he is déjà vu, not jamais vu. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nearly all of us fall short of our greatest goals. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed.
Sheets of water fell on Pimlico Race Course late Saturday afternoon. Only one horse had the pluck to defy the pelting rain. He put his pursuers to shame. That’s a horse worth cheering for.