Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, it finally happened! After 37 years and 12 unsuccessful attempts many of which we watched together, the Triple Crown was won on Saturday. As with most things in my life, it has taken a few days to digest what I saw and what (if anything) it means for horse racing and for me.
I continued the tradition we started in 1987, when Mom and I went to watch Alysheba try to win the triple crown. That try was unsuccessful as were the others; Dad’s trip to watch Smarty Jones and mine to watch Big Brown, I’ll Have Another and California Chrome. Honestly, I was beginning to think the task was impossible and the Triple Crown was the unattainable goal.
Until American Pharoah (yes, I know Dad . .. it’s spelled wrong but that’s not our choice is it?) marched down his procession of races this year, I did not think I would ever see a Triple Crown winner again. I remember our poster of Steve Cauthen that hung in the game room in the basement. I took for granted during the 70’s how easy this task seemed. We were truly spoiled by riches having Secretariat in 1973 then Seattle Slew in 1977 and topping it off with Affirmed in 1978. These three horses gave the impression winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes was an easy feat. The next 37 years proved that was the furthest from reality.
I watched American Pharoah win the Kentucky Derby. He was the favorite after making a huge impact statement win in the Arkansas Derby. A bad post, number 18, hampered him, but that didn’t stop his jockey, Victor Espinosa, from bringing him home in front. The Preakness was a day that showed American Pharoah’s resilience. Shortly before the race, the clouds opened up on Pimlico creating a quagmire for American Pharoah to slog through in order to win the Preakness. He did slog through the slop and seemed to relish in it for his win in the Preakness.
Now the craziness ensued. The hopes of those of us invested in horse racing. The possibility yet again that the Triple Crown could be won was in front of us. Like watching a no hitter, while it was going on, I tried not to talk about if it could happen or what it would mean. Bob Baffert was interviewed during the week leading up to the running of the Belmont Stakes, and he said that should he win the Triple Crown he would have no idea how he would feel. How could he? The only trainer alive who won one is Billy Turner. As the three weeks developed, excitement turned to giddiness as the workouts were posted and Amerian Pharoah seemed to be getting better with each trip to the track.
Karrie and I loaded the car and headed to Belmont Park on Friday morning. Our goal was to get there for the afternoon races in time to see some friends and soak in the scenery before Belmont Day insanity set in. Well the travel gods had other plans; we made great time through the Poconos, even stopping in Wilkes Barre for lunch as we did when we would make the trip as a family. Nichols Village is still there, no longer a Howard Johnsons, but still a landmark off 81. Getting back on after lunch, we figured we would be in good shape for a midafternoon arrival. Then.. . in the middle of 80, traffic stands still. An accident in a one lane section of the highway backed us up for over an hour. Nonetheless, we made it to Floral Park, having what is becoming an annual tradition of Pre-Belmont dinner at King Umberto’s.
At the pre-Belmont party we were invited to; I was able to catch up with both Billy Turner, who had fond memories to share of when you took his photo at the Saratoga Backstretch in 1977 or 1978 (neither of us were sure) and Jean Cruget, the last living Triple Crown jockey/Trainer duo.
Making it to the track Belmont Morning was easy from the hotel we stayed at. Making our hellos and updating our badges was on the to do list. We finally settled in for the excitement that was going to ensue. Having a fun table at the Turf and Field Club made the day that much more enjoyable. We would catch up with friends in the paddock and continue to take pictures of pretty much everyone and everything.
The race was approaching. Would we get to witness history? Making my way in the paddock between races; I saw American Pharoah as he entered the paddock. He is a toned, well muscled horse who was not disturbed by the throngs of people, the likes of which I have never seen at the paddock before. I made my way back up to the table so I would be able to witness what I hoped would be history with Karrie. We stood on the landing between the Turf and Field Club and the Garden Terrace getting more and more excited as Frank Sinatra sang New York New York, we were watching something special. The vibe was vastly different from any triple crown attempt I had been to; this felt like a coronation.
American Pharoah did what any horse owner entering a race hoped for; he broke in front and improved his position. By the time he hit the top of the stretch we knew it was over; American Pharoah was going to win the Triple Crown! The noise was truly deafening; the likes of which I have never heard. It was thunderous inside safely ensconced behind glass, however the sound burst through. The celebration ensued; people dressed to the nines screaming Triple Crown, Triple Crown . .hugging, dancing and complete celebration. Euphoria rained on the crowd and the crowd soaked it in.
It was an amazing time. It was a party both of you would have loved to be. The laughs the memories and the victory were all there. Chills were sent down my spine similar to watching the Secretariat Belmont; not because the length of victory was as impressive but the euphoria was.
American Pharoah will race this year. There is a syndication agreement already done for $20 million. The winning connections; Zayat Stables, Bob Baffert and Victor Espinosa are making the rounds. The important thing to know about these people is they have found a way to give back immediately. The Zayats, the Bafferts and Victor Espinosa donated proceeds whether from the purse or endorsements it matters not, to horse related charities. The fact that these people in the height of euphoria in the game we love chose to donate to charities in and out of the game is commendable.
Will the Triple Crown winner save racing? Certainly not at tracks like Finger Lakes. Certainly not winter racing at Aqueduct. Certainly not at Charlestown or other smaller tracks. That being said, will it bring one more fan to the turnstiles? If yes, then the Triple Crown is a wonderful thing.
Mom and Dad, I wish you were there to watch this historic event take place. I wish you could have heard the crowd the like of which you hadn’t seen since your own trip to the Derby some 41 years ago. I wish you could see how technology is taking over the sport we love making handicapping easier and access greater. I wish you could be here for the aftermath, to see if the Triple Crown does create growth in the sport. I know you were watching from the best seats in the house; those on high, but it would have been great to share the emotions of this victory together.
Love you and miss you.