Here we goddamn go again.
If you’re soundly of masochistic leanings, if heartbreak is your mother’s milk and wincing is your morning constitutional, then horse racing’s Triple Crown chase is for you.
The misses through the last 37 years since Affirmed read like The Edward Gorey Book of Horse Racing: California Chrome, whose heel was clipped, and I’ll Have Another, whose tendon ripped; Big Brown, whose steroids his trainer couldn’t inject, and War Emblem, who kneeled at the gate, as if to genuflect; Smarty Jones, who was moved too quick, and Charismatic, whose tragic last-furlong break left us sick; Funny Cide, who drowned in the mud, and Real Quiet, who missed by half a nostril (tough break, bud).
Then there was the best of them all, Spectacular Bid, who stepped on a safety pin the morning of the 1979 Belmont Stakes. It was like something out of Aesop’s degenerate fables, where the moral is the same: Always fade a 1-5 favorite.
Which brings us to American Pharoah. Can he do it? The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner has plenty going for him heading into the Belmont on June 6. First off, there’s Mr. Prospector. That horse was a decent sprinter in 1974, who went on to become sort of the Mitochondrial Eve of horse racing. Eight of the 10 probable starters in this Belmont have Mr. Prospector blood, but you have to pay special attention to the descendants of Mr. P’s son, Fappiano. There have been four Belmont winners from that branch in the last 18 years, including Empire Maker, the grandsire of Pharoah. Three other horses in the race come from the Fappiano line: Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve, Frosted and Frammento. (The latter has as much of a shot as an actual, mummified pharaoh.)
Then there’s trainer Bob Baffert, whose taking his fourth swing at the Triple Crown piñata, having saddled the still-can’t-believe-he-didn’t-win Real Quiet, the other so-close-you-can’t-breathe near miss in Silver Charm and War Emblem. But it’s that latter horse that sticks out. Said Baffert of War Emblem, whose bad break at the gate cost him any chance at winning the 2002 Belmont: “He was so one-dimensional and [so] irritable that as soon as he was behind horses, I had to sit there for 2½ minutes waiting for the race to be over.” Contrast that with Pharoah, of whom Baffert said: “I’ve never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground the way he does. There’s something in there that makes him so different.” He would know better than anyone.
Even the incidental stuff seems to point to Pharoah living a charmed life. The early favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he had to pull out before the race. But the Juvenile is like the Heisman for horses—they rarely do well in the classics. With Pharoah sidelined, Texas Red wound up winning. Who? Exactly.
“Can he win?” though, is a different question than “Will he win?” Pharoah has the best chance at the Crown since at least Smarty Jones, maybe Silver Charm. But that hasn’t meant much, given the uphill slog of the mile-and-a-half marathon distance, which caps a grueling five weeks on the track. Still, some horse has to win it eventually, barring a meteor, horseflesh-eating virus or zombie outbreak. Pay close attention to Frosted and Materiality. Play an exacta with Pharoah on top and the field underneath—if a bizarre long shot comes in second, you could make a little score. At least throw a couple bucks on Pharoah for a souvenir win ticket. Just don’t invest thousands for a return that likely will be 25 cents on the dollar by post time.
The bigger question, though, is whether a Pharaoh win would be good for horse racing. In the short term, absolutely. It’ll dominate the news cycle for at least a day, until the Patriots have a really good OTA or Johnny Manziel goes shopping for produce.
Long term? No. Racing has a bunch of problems that keep it from returning to even the popularity of, say, MMA or golf. The lack of a Triple Crown winner isn’t one of them. If anything, the three weeks of speculation, hype and overbearing teeth-gnashing about how racing is dead without a Crown keep the game in people’s minds. What happens in 2018 between the Preakness and the Belmont when we just had a winner in 2015? There won’t be the hilariously ill-informed hot takes on ESPN’s Pardon the Old Guys Yelling About Nothing. There will just be the race, and a vague sense of amusement that we ever got so worked up about the chase—if anything at all.
It’s going to happen someday. But hopefully that day comes after racing has fixed its bigger problems, leaving the sport better positioned to capitalize on a winner.
Regardless, here we goddamn go again …