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The Case for ... The Pharoah Factor

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THE STALL—third on the right in one of trainer Bob Baffert's two barns at Santa Anita Race Track in Southern California—looks pretty much the same: hay on the floor, feed tub outside and a piece of rubber webbing stretched across the opening. What's different is the occupant, an unraced 3-year-old colt named Jazzy Times. For most of 2015, American Pharoah lived here.

Baffert kept the stall empty for a month, after Pharoah was moved to a Kentucky breeding farm last November. "Thirty days of empty stall, 60 days of depression," he says. "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 another Triple Crown season commences. For years horse racing had been held hostage by a claustrophobic story line: the lack of a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Then American Pharoah unshackled the sport from that narrative prison last summer. The drought is dead, long live the drought.

Now, with the Kentucky Derby set for Saturday, racing is left to ask, What is the enduring power of Pharoah's crown? Is there a Pharoah Factor? If so, what is it?

The immediate returns make it hard to draw any firm conclusions. More than 22 million viewers watched the Belmont Stakes last June—a big number but hardly transformative, and slightly lower than the audience for the previous year's Triple Crown attempt, by California Chrome.

The results are similarly mixed at racecourses around the country. Saratoga Race Track, the beloved upstate New York summer racing mecca, reported an increase in handle and a slight increase in attendance post-Pharoah, but nothing monumental. Its Southern California counterpart, Del Mar Race Track, lost 1.2% in handle and 12% in attendance last summer. Yet Gulfstream Park in South Florida is headed for a record winter-spring meeting for stakes and number of races.

Pharoah did create an unmistakable buzz—yet it too can't be easily measured. A huge crowd came to New Jersey's Monmouth Park last August to watch his first start after the Belmont. And nearly 15,000 fans showed up at Saratoga on the Friday morning before the Travers just to watch him gallop once around the track. That moment may have been peak Pharoah. On that late August day he was Seabiscuit and Secretariat rolled into a single presence, a generation's link to tales they had only heard spun.

If there's unimpeachable evidence of a Triple Crown bump, perhaps it's this: One of the most popular means for nonmillionaires to enter the world of horse ownership is by joining partnerships, in which groups from a few to a few dozen people share ownership of one or more 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%."

On Saturday, 20 horses will load into the starting gate at Churchill Downs and more than 160,000 fans will bring a liquid roar. The favorite will be Nyquist (above), winner of all seven of his races, including dominant runs this spring in the Florida Derby and San Vicente Stakes. He is a good horse, yet you can hear the whispers already: Can he win the Triple Crown?

It is the same old trap, of course, and it is inescapable. But in the end, this is what American Pharoah offered: a reminder that doing what had seemed to become impossible can still be done. And even if it doesn't happen again this spring, we have memories to last another 37 years. That is his legacy. That is the Pharoah Factor.

The favorite at Saturday's Kentucky Derby will be Nyquist. He is a good horse, yet you can hear the whispers: Can he win the Triple Crown?

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MATTHEW STOCKMAN/GETTY IMAGES