Monday, December 14, 2015

The Lasting Impact of American Pharoah’s Walk-off Grand Slam

Finally, we watched a horse that could beat Secretariat.

No sport has been bound by its past like horse racing. Every spring, archival footage from the 1970’s would splash across smartphones, high-definition TVs and laptops as the Triple Crown chase began anew. It was a painful reminder that horse racing’s best days were long gone.

american pharoah walkoff grand slam
As an avid horse racing fan, I always found the “horse racing is dead” meme to be inaccurate and lazy. But year after year meant that it became accepted as gospel to mainstream sports media. Thankfully, that meme is now dead.

American Pharoah had nothing left to prove as the Breeders Cup Classic arrived. As someone who lost their mind at Belmont Park in June, he certainly had nothing to prove to me. I had witnessed what may be the greatest sporting moment of my life. Nothing will ever compare to the wall of noise that erupted when American Pharoah ended the most celebrated sports drought outside of the Chicago Cubs.

But Pharoah did have to prove at the Breeders Cup Classic that he belonged next to Secretariat, next to Affirmed, next to Spectacular Bid, next to all of the long-ago legends that dominate the horse racing landscape, decades after they ran.

In retrospect, we can act like it didn’t mean much. We can say his Triple Crown would have echoed for eternity regardless. We can say that history would be kind to him regardless. The truth is, it did matter. We know it mattered by our reaction.

As American Pharaoh hit the stretch at Keeneland and took off like Pegasus, I stood up in my living room, pumped my fist and yelled, “Let’s go baby!” I was sick and tired of people – particularly, non-racing fans – poking holes in Pharoah’s resume based on one devastatingly stinging loss in the Travers.

No, it wasn’t the same as the Belmont Stakes. It couldn’t be. This was different. This was more than a coronation. This was an affirmation of the thoroughbred.

Lost in the “Triple Crown drought” talk that had dogged the sport was lurking the very real possibility that we would never see another Secretariat. Breeding principles that focused on speed for the past 25 years would eventually ruin the Triple Crown. There would never been another horse to complete the feat and breathe that rarified air. There would be no heir to Secretariat's throne.

Every so often, it felt like those fears were becoming truths. Smarty Jones and California Chrome couldn’t win at 1 ½ miles. Triple Crown stars seemed to quickly flame out – whether it was Afleet Alex, Point Given or Rags to Riches – as they were never a factor come October, much less the following year.

These fears had become so ingrained in horse racing that some of the sport’s most respected handicappers – ahem, Andrew Beyer – lined up to take their shot at American Pharoah at every step of the way. The Derby would be his first real test. He wouldn’t have the speed to win the Preakness. He wouldn’t have the stamina to win the Belmont.

He passed test after test, and with it, American Pharoah developed new fans. It is hard to overstate the perfection of Pharoah’s timing. I wrote in February that 2015 was horse racing’s most important year and that had nothing to do with our future Triple Crown winner. It was all based on a sport that finally got its act together.

In 2007, neither the Travers or Haskell Invitational was on broadcast television. In 2015, both of American Pharoah’s races were on NBC – and they would have been if he raced or not. That is the type of traction the sport had made in the past decade.

But despite all of the sport’s best efforts to keep the public’s attention post-Triple Crown, the battle was a fruitless one. Everything in our culture is based on stars. It doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, a book, a TV show or a sporting event – you need an A-list star on the marquee for people to care.

Finally, American Pharoah was the one.

His impact on the 2015 racing season was never in doubt by the time the Breeders Cup rolled around. His impact on the future of horse racing, though, was still up for debate. If he doesn’t win the Breeders Cup, do those new fans suddenly tune out? Think about all those Smarty Jones or California Chrome fans that disappeared followed Belmont Stakes failings.

Instead, American Pharoah rolled through the homestretch at Keeneland like a rocket and gave everyone yet another indelible memory to keep in that select part of our brain where only the best reside.

american pharoah saratoga friday
That is why American Pharoah’s Grand Slam will echo along with his Triple Crown. The story didn’t end at Belmont. It continued through the rest of the year. It touched hundreds of thousands of people from June to October.

Most importantly, the archival footage next spring may be toned down by, oh, a million percent. Sure, we’ll always be reminded of the glory horses from the 1970’s. But there’s company now, in stunning HD. We’ll all see American Pharoah, striding away from Frosted in the Belmont and wasting them all in the Classic.

No sport was more rooted in its past. No sport needed a refresh more desperately. American Pharoah delivered in every way possible. He recalibrated everything.

For three decades, the younger generation of horse racing fans asked their elders, “What was it like to see Secretariat?” Now, they finally know the answer.

That’s why American Pharoah is 2015’s biggest sporting hero, person or otherwise.

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