Victor Espinoza: American Pharoah deserves Sportsman of the Year
American Pharoah is one of the leading contenders for Sports Illustrated's 2015 Sportsman of the Year. You can see the full list and the entire series of essays that make the argument for each candidate here. This story also appears in the Nov. 23, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
American Pharoah should be Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsman of the Year for the simple reason that there may never be another Triple Crown winner. It had been such a long time since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978—I was only six years old then, just a kid on a farm in Mexico—and I never thought I’d see another. I was so lucky to ride this horse.
After American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, he went on to do something that no other Triple Crown winner ever had. Last month at Keeneland, in the final race of his career, he won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic—the toughest race in the world—beating older horses and international rivals. And he made it look easy, crossing the finish 6.5 lengths in front. How many other athletes made history twice in the last year? Only American Pharoah.
Somebody always wins the World Series. Somebody always wins the Super Bowl. Somebody always wins the Stanley Cup and the NBA Finals. But only 12 horses in history have won the Triple Crown. I know that Serena Williams lost in the semis at the U.S. Open and just missed a chance to complete the Grand Slam in women’s tennis. In men’s golf, Jordan Spieth won the first two major tournaments of the year before coming up just short in the British Open. American Pharoah won seven of his eight starts, including all the biggest races, won the first Triple Crown in 37 years and capped off his campaign by winning a world championship at the Breeders’ Cup. In terms of accomplishment, nobody else came close to him in 2015.
In terms of athleticism, I can’t think of a purer example than American Pharoah. His stride was so beautiful and smooth. The rest of my life, I’ll never forget how it felt to ride him. It never felt like he was running fast, more like he was moving in slow motion. I’ve ridden a lot of great horses. Two of them, War Emblem in 2002, and California Chrome in ’14, won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before coming up short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. But you could always tell—like with most horses—when they were running all out. But with American Pharoah, we’d be out there galloping around the track as easy as could be, and I’d look back and be five or six lengths in front of everybody. He was a champion.
The decision of owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to keep American Pharoah running after he won the Triple Crown was a real gift to the sport, and the year’s greatest display of sportsmanship. The colt could have been retired to a very good career as a stallion in June, and there was a large element of risk in bringing him back to the racetrack. Horse racing can be dangerous. But Ahmed and Bob kept him running, and kept him winning. For fans—for everyone, really—to be able to see him run some more races was the gift of a lifetime. Like I said, we may never see another Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was a star that made our whole sport look good.
I know he’s not human, but SI has always treated racing as a serious sport. And he deserves serious consideration. If there were ever a time for a horse to win Sportsman of the Year, it is now. In winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, American Pharoah gave racing a new story line. In winning the Breeders’ Cup he did something no horse had ever done before. And he did it all with style. I’ll never ride another horse like him. And you’ll probably never see one like him either.