WE BESEECH A certain purity from our athletes. We want home run hitters to go deep and gold medal sprinters to go fast without the assistance of drugs. We want college athletes to attend classes and work toward meaningful degrees. We want winners to earnestly praise teammates and coaches, and losers to congratulate winners and accept blame. We want contracts honored and honest effort given by all. We get this purity only sporadically, but perhaps that is because we are looking in the wrong places.
Late Saturday afternoon at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky., a 3-year-old thoroughbred rolled to a 6½-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the last race of his career. On a gray and windy day, American Pharoah's performance was a dominant coda to a historic season in which he became the first horse in 37 years—and just the 12th in history—to win the Triple Crown. A generation and more had seen nothing like him.
The first time I saw American Pharoah run was last March on a television screen, in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. My wife and I were going out for the evening, but because Triple Crown season was approaching, and because I would be covering it, I stood impatiently with a TV remote in my hand for a quick look as American Pharoah won by 6¼ lengths in the slop. I had been watching racing for nearly 40 years, and I had never seen a horse run like this. His stride was so fluid it appeared effortless. I was frozen in place, my mouth agape.
Ten weeks later I watched from atop the clubhouse at Churchill Downs in Louisville as Pharoah trained for the Belmont, having already won the Derby and the Preakness. He galloped faster than most horses run at full speed. "Super chingón," said exercise rider Martin Garcia to trainer Bob Baffert, invoking Spanish slang for hard-nosed greatness. Former SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Kenny Moore once referred to 1968 Olympic 200-meter gold medalist Tommie Smith as "the sweetest mover that ever drew breath." That's Pharoah, among horses. The sweetest mover that ever drew breath.
Some argue that horse racing is not a sport because its "athletes" are animals. Others despise horse racing on the grounds that it is cruel to those same animals. Here in this space, horse racing is not only a sport, it is a primal sport, full of the purity so often lacking elsewhere. Its equine athletes are remarkable machines—graceful and strong, fast yet fragile.
In the 7½ months since he won the Rebel, American Pharoah won the Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. After resting briefly in California, he flew across the country to win the Haskell at Monmouth Park in New Jersey on Aug. 2 and then flew back to California and back across the country again, to New York, where he finished second in the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29. (His owner, Ahmed Zayat, didn't have to enter any of these races for the payday—Pharoah's breeding rights had been sold for millions in the weeks before the Kentucky Derby.) The colt then returned one last time to California and flew back to Kentucky on Oct. 27 for the Breeders' Cup. He won seven of eight starts in 2015, traveled more than 20,000 miles and never got an extended rest. "Horses just don't do that," says Baffert.
Here is what Pharoah did, and did repeatedly: He showed up and ran. He was flown and vanned and housed in unfamiliar barns and visited by hordes of adoring fans—whom he welcomed with the personality of a golden retriever—and then (on every day but one) he would emerge from his stall and float counterclockwise around an oval, too fast for the rest. Baffert was so enamored of the colt's running style that he asked veteran jockey Gary Stevens to exercise Pharoah in the morning, just to feel his mechanics; Baffert also asked fellow trainer Todd Pletcher to just once hold Pharoah's lead shank and walk him. "I just wanted to share him with my friends in the sport," says Baffert.
American Pharoah won his last race the way he won most of his races: He bounced to the lead and couldn't be caught. There was a joy in his stride as he opened his lead to three lengths, then four, then five, his adoring fans in full throat. His final victory was a moment unencumbered, unspoiled and unforgettable, as fundamental as sport itself, as pure as the crisp autumn air.
American Pharoah's final victory was a moment unencumbered, unspoiled and unforgettable, as fundamental as sport itself.
Should American Pharoah be Sportsman of the Year? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SITimLayden
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED