AMERICAN PHAROAH & THE BELMONT
Another spring. Another superstar with two jewels adorning his bridle.
There have been a plethora of them before him: Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Silver Charm. Charismatic, Funny Cide, War Emblem, Smarty Jones & Big Brown, just to name a few recent ones. Then, we can go back to Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Majestic Prince & Canonero II.
Oh – & a guy named Chrome, just last year.
And none of those guys could do it on the third Saturday after Old Hilltop.
Only 11 have ever done it & it’s been a lifetime since 17 year-old Stevie Cauthen urged Affirmed under the wire mere inches ahead of Alydar for the third time in a row. 1978. Thirty-seven years.
And now, there’s the Pharoah.
On May 16th, he made his competition look almost laughable, cruising through the driving rain like he was out for a walk in the park. Seven lengths that could have certainly been double digits if Espinoza had really asked him. But Victor didn’t have to ask him. It was that easy. He won it in cruise control.
American Pharoah floats. He floats on air. He flows like water. He seems to slide down the track, rather than running on top of it. There’s no up & down about him. He’s flat as the flight of an arrow as he eats up ground almost effortlessly.
To be sure, he had to work in the Derby, but only enough to win. Victor no doubt dinged him more than he needed to, but it didn’t seem to bother the Pharoah, either during or after the race. But that’s a conversation for another day. He won. And he won again in The Preakness.
And that’s where we are today.
As of today, there’s probably only one other Preakness contender going to New York & that’s Tale of Verve, who ran second to the Pharoah. Derby shooters Materiality, Carpe Diem, Keen Ice, Mubtaahij, Frammento & Frosted appear to be gunning for him, too. And, by Belmont Day, they’ll all have had five weeks’ rest & a number of works.
And it’s often one of the ‘shooters’ who brings down the would-be king. Happens quite often. Like, usually.
Or plain old bad luck can do it, too. Just ask Big Brown. And even California Chrome.
And, of course, how a particular horse is feeling on a particular day. Just like us two-leggeds, they have good days & bad days & in-between days. On June 6th, only the horses that go into the gate will know what kind of day they’re having. And one of them will be feeling at the very top of his game.
There is & will continue to be much discussion over the next couple of weeks about breeding & whether or not this or that horse is bred for the mile-&-a-half distance, blah, blah, blah. And about the tactics that’ll be used, although the sweeping turns at the Big Sandy, when added to the distance, preclude a lot of what we see in the Derby stampede & at Pimlico, with its tight turns & slightly shorter distance.
This race – The Belmont – is all about heart.
The heart to stare down that forever backstretch & relax & have fun while you’re doing it.
The heart to dig down a little deeper coming through that big sweeping turn that seems to encompass all of Elmont.
The heart to look down that final 1097 feet to the line & laugh at it.
The heart to stare down other horses who are trying to do the same thing & say, “Nope, pardner…..this one’s mine!”
And then, the heart to go to the well one more time & know that you’re running on the wind.
And the heart to grab the bit in your teeth & tear the reins out of the jock’s hands & fly.
Just simply fly.
That’s what kings do.
And to date, we’ve only seen 11 kings.
The big question in my mind is whether or not this even-tempered, mild-mannered ‘gentleman’ who seems to run like a flowing river will have the epitome of royalty in his heart on June 6th.
The odds are stacked against him. History’s shown us that.
Although he’ll go off as the prohibitive on-track favorite, he isn’t only running against other horses. In the grand scheme of things, he’s running against history. And, against history, he’s a long shot.
On June 6th, American Pharoah will be running against a host of competitors: the other horses; history; &, most of all, himself.
Can he combine that wonderful stride with that nearly unblemished race record & that ‘gotcha!’ mind of his with a spirit that resides at the very core of his being & run the race of his life?
I hope so. I really do.
We all need a king, right now.
Maybe, better yet, we all need a Pharoah