Horse racing broke free of an old narrative last season: When will another Triple Crown come? But with American Pharoah in retirement, the sport must redefine itself again.
The stall looks pretty much the same: Third on the right in one of thoroughbred horse trainer Bob Baffert’s two barns at Santa Anita Race track in Southern California. Stall number 33, a few doors down from Baffert’s tack room. Hay on the floor, feed tub outside and a piece of rubber webbing stretched across the opening. Sunlight slanting through a small window at the back. What’s different is the occupant, an unraced three-year-old colt named Jazzy Times. For most of 2015, American Pharoah lived here.
Baffert kept the stall empty for a month last November, after Pharoah tacked a Breeders Cup Classic victory onto his historic Triple Crown and then was moved to a Kentucky breeding farm. “Thirty days of empty stall, 60 days of depression,” says Baffert. He put Jazzy Times in Stall 33 because the horse is owned by Ahmed Zayat, who owned Pharoah during his racing career. (Zayat had a camera mounted in the stall so that he could watch Pharoah do almost nothing; now he can watch Jazzy Times do almost nothing, though it’s unlikely Zayat will.) “Sixty days, that’s a long time,” says Baffert. “My wife still isn’t over it. She loves that horse. But at some point you have to turn the page.”
This scene—and that statement—make poor Jazzy Times a four-legged metaphor for the racing business, as Saturday’s Kentucky Derby draws closer and another Triple Crown season commences. (In fairness, it commenced months ago for the owners, trainers and jockeys who have been chasing Derby spots since before Pharoah retired. For the interloping general public, it begins when the starting gate slams open Saturday in Louisville and ends with the Belmont Stakes on June 11 in New York, or possibly sooner. We’ll see about that part.)
For almost four decades—37 years, to be exact—horse racing had been held hostage by an increasingly urgent and claustrophobic storyline: The lack of a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. I have a touch of carpal tunnel syndrome from repeatedly typing just those last few words, in various combinations. American Pharoah unshackled the sport from that narrative prison with his victories in last year’s Derby and Preakness, and finally, with his dominant Belmont win last June. The drought is dead, long live the drought. Thanks to Zayat and Baffert, racing was given the chance to embrace Pharoah through the summer (a win in the Haskell and a gritty loss in the Travers) and all the way to his Halloween evening win in the Breeders Cup. It was a euphoric, six-month party, multiple generations in the planning.
But as with any party, there is a morning after. The sun rises, the calendar rolls forward and in this case, racing is left to ask what is the enduring power of Pharoah’s crown? These waters are every bit as uncharted as last year’s. The last time a Triple Crown was won after a long gap was in 1973, when the beloved Secretariat ended the 25-year gap since Citation in 1948. But changes in sports and communication render any comparisons between 1973 and the present irrelevant. Before the end of the ’70s, there would be two more Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in ’78. And Spectacular Bid seemed a lock to win in 1979. Maybe that will happen again. I’m taking the under. More to the point here, is there a Pharoah Factor (or Phactor)? If so, what is it?
Pause here. Let me just say that if there is absolutely zero residual effect from American Pharoah’s Triple Crown (and beyond) from 2015, and all we are left with is the memory of that remarkable season, I am absolutely fine with that. That horse owes me nothing. Owes us nothing. O.K., moving on.
For the last dozen or so of those 37 years, it was often said that racing “needed” a Triple Crown champion to recapture some lost relevance (though that relevance was seldom fully defined). If only some super horse would emerge to capture those three races in just five weeks, perhaps it would be 1973 again, or 1937, and fans would pack Belmont Park on a Wednesday afternoon or chase trains as horses barnstormed the country. That was always unrealistic. Times have changed. “American Pharoah was the lead story on SportsCenter, the lead story on world news, and that has to be a great thing for racing,” says Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. “Hopefully that influences a few people who don’t normally follow racing to keep watching. And I do think racing is more popular than it was a year ago. But it’s naïve to think that a Triple Crown winner is going to save racing, if you want to use that term. It’s going to take more than that to make racing develop and grow.”
Begin with the star of last year’s show. American Pharoah will not be back to defend his Kentucky Derby or Triple Crown titles, because those races—by far the most popular in this country—are for 3-year-olds only. Obvious, I know, but in the matter of building on Pharoah’s popularity, a significant detail. (Imagine that major league baseball was only for 22-year-olds and thus Bryce Harper is ineligible this year.) Pharoah might have stayed in training to compete as a 4-year-old (and beyond), but the economics of the sport all but demanded that he be retired to stud. It was a huge risk for Zayat to race him beyond the Triple Crown. This year Pharoah was bred to somewhere between 150 and 200 mares at a cost that will average out to nearly $200,000 per breeding. (When Zayat sold Pharoah’s stud rights to Ireland’s Coolmore Stud for slightly less than $10 million in the winter of 2015, he kept several breeding rights, which could generate an annual seven-figure income for many years if Pharoah is a successful stallion).
Meanwhile, California Chrome—who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2014 but was denied the Triple Crown at Belmont Stakes, and is back in serious training after a troubled 2015 and coming off a dominant victory in the March Dubai World—might be the best racehorse on the planet. (At least until the brilliant 6-year-old mare, Beholder, begins her season.) To review: 2015 Triple Crown winner, retired; 2014 Triple Crown failure, King of the Hill. A portion of California Chrome’s breeding rights have been sold to Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky, but Perry Martin, his majority owner, has chosen to keep him racing to improve his final rights fee, because Chrome is not regally bred. This is all fairly commonplace in racing, and California Chrome is a fantastic racehorse worthy of interest, affection and betting dollars. But it’s not exactly ideal in terms of building on American Pharoah’s Triple Crown momentum, when Pharoah himself spends his days shuttling back and forth between a paddock and a breeding shed. Which, again, is perfectly normal. Just challenging for the marketing people.
So Pharoah is not here to keep this shindig rolling. What did he leave behind? NBC’s telecast of the Belmont Stakes drew a high rating, but slightly lower than the previous year’s Triple Crown attempt, with California Chrome. More than 22 million viewers were watching during the actual running of the race, which is a big number, even in the confusing—and ever-evolving—world of television ratings, which are heavily affected by digital viewing methods. Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup victory—on a college football Saturday—was the highest-rated Breeders Cup Classic in 20 years, although it was out-rated by the Florida-Georgia football game on CBS. Television ratings can be spun endlessly, but what seems true is this: A lot of people watched Pharoah’s last few races, but not so many that anyone could classify it as transformative.
Saratoga Race Track, the beloved upstate New York summer racing mecca, reported an increase in handle and a slight increase in attendance. Nothing monumental. Del Mar Race Track, in Southern California, the West Coast Saratoga, lost 1.2% in handle and 12% in attendance last summer. Gulfstream Park in South Florida, is headed for a record winter-spring meeting. Again, difficult to find a quantifiable bounce.
Yet there was an unmistakable buzz that can’t be easily measured. A huge crowd (but probably not the record attendance that was announced) came to Monmouth Park in early August to watch Pharoah’s first start after the Belmont. Nearly 20,000 fans showed up at Saratoga on the Friday morning before the late August Travers just to watch Pharoah gallop once around the track, the rough equivalent of Warriors’ fans filling Oracle Arena to watch Steph Curry do shooting drills before a game. If there was a moment of Peak Pharoah, that was probably it. On that day, he was Seabiscuit and Secretariat rolled into a single presence, a generation’s link to tales they had only heard spun.
But there is also this, a ray of statistical significance. One of the most popular means for non-millionaires to enter the world of horse ownership is by joining partnerships, business arrangements where up to 20 or more individuals share ownership of a single—or multiple—racehorses. According to Terry Finley, the president and CEO of West Point Thoroughbreds, since Pharoah’s Triple Crown, “the number of prospects contacting us to discuss buying into one or more of our partnerships has skyrocketed by more than 30%. It’s quite remarkable.” Finley said he has no doubt that the increased interest in ownership is carryover from Pharoah’s run. And of course, there is no better way to measure interest at the racetrack than by a person’s willingness to reach into his or her wallet. Pharoah moved the needle. He wasn’t going to solve any of racing’s most vexing problems—too many drugs, diverse and unconnected commissions and an aging fan base—but he made people care. It’s a start.
On Saturday 20 horses—each with a wonderful back story—will load into the starting gate at Churchill Downs and more than 160,000 fans will bring a liquid roar. Baffert will start Mor Spirit, a game colt who finished second in the Santa Anita Derby. Zayat will not have a starter in the Derby. In a text about life after Pharoah, he wrote, “Same as life before Pharoah,” which is harmlessly disingenuous. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who has won the last two Derbies, will ride Whitmore, third-place finisher in the Arkansas Derby and no American Pharoah.
The favorite will be the unbeaten Nyquist, winner of all seven races, a two-year-old champion and dominant winner of two prep races this spring. He is owned by Paul Reddam, trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Mario Gutierrez, the same threesome that took I’ll Have Another to wins in the 2012 Derby and Preakness before scratching on the eve of the Belmont Stakes. He is a good horse, a fast horse, who may or may not like the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Derby. Yet, you can hear the whispers already: Can he win the Triple Crown?
It is the same old trap, of course, the same old narrative, inescapable, with a fresh spin and no drought. But in the end, this is what American Pharoah offered: A taste of the impossible, and now the hope of seeing it again. Now we know it can be done. And if it happens, Pharoah becomes the one who showed the way. If it doesn’t, we have memories to last another 37 years. That is his legacy. That is the Pharoah Factor.