For American Pharoah, Derby Tops the List

Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrated as eventual Triple Crown winner earned a hard-fought victory in the Kentucky Derby. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrated as eventual Triple Crown winner earned a hard-fought victory in the Kentucky Derby. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

With the whirlwind of American Pharoah in its final days and the holidays still underway, there has been little time for proper reflection on the events of 2016 that brought admirers of Thoroughbred racing the first Triple Crown sweep since 1978.

As spectacular as the moments following the stirring Belmont Stakes triumph by Ahmed Zayat’s homebred hero were, there’s a very good chance that American Pharoah’s Triple Crown triumph will look even better down the road. By then, we’ll have had time to contemplate the magical run by the son of Pioneer of The Nile and to place his remarkable accomplishment in proper historical context.

But I did read a year-end ranking of notable 2015 races a few weeks back that, quite frankly, stunned me. The Kentucky Derby triumph, which was the first and most important step in American Pharoah’s historic Triple Crown run and his second-half of the year surge that concluded with his career-ending victory in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, did not merit a mention in the top 10.

It should be no surprise to any reader that I believe the writer got it wrong in dismissing American Pharoah’s Derby on that list of top U.S. racing performances of 2015.

American Pharoah was paraded before adoring fans at Churchill Downs in a celebration one week after he earned a rare Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

American Pharoah was paraded before adoring fans at Churchill Downs in a celebration one week after he earned a rare Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Photo by REED PALMER | Churchill Downs

On my personal rankings, American Pharoah’s Derby win is at the top.

Yes, I work at Churchill Downs and have done so since January 1997, and you, as a reader, have every right to dismiss my opinion as one that is fueled by home-track bias. I would be foolish to contend that there is no bias in my assessment of the 2015 Derby.

But while it is possible that personal bias has helped vault American Pharoah’s Derby victory to the year’s top spot, it does not make me wrong.

I firmly believe American Pharoah’s top performance of his unforgettable 3-year-old season was his victory in the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. My reasoning is simple: American Pharoah defeated 17 rivals beneath the Twin Spires on a Saturday on which his individual effort was far from his best.

He found a way to triumph in the American race that is most difficult to win despite bringing something well below his A-game to the starting gate. After struggling throughout over a grueling 1-1/4 miles, he found a way to deliver a Kentucky Derby victory under jockey Victor Espinoza that made everything else in his dream campaign possible.

Without a Derby victory that had looked doubtful just inside the half-mile pole, there would be no Triple Crown, no “Grand Slam” and no Sport Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year” consideration to celebrate.

American Pharoah needed every ounce of his remarkable talent that could be summoned to win the 141st Kentucky Derby. Baffert said later that, at the half-mile pole, he thought front-running Dortmund, not the struggling American Pharoah, was his best chance to increase his personal Derby victory total to four.

Espinoza had asked American Pharoah for his best at that point but got little response. He swung the favorite outside and away from main rivals Dortmund and Firing Line and continued to work to awaken the colt. Espinoza used his riding crop 32 times through the Churchill Downs stretch to get American Pharoah’s attention and finally squeeze a victory out of the colt before a record 170,513 Derby fans, and the colt finally wore down eventual runner-up Firing Line in the final yards to win by a hard-earned length.

“Every time he runs, he shows me something we’ve never seen,” recalled Baffert after the colt’s Triple Crown-clinching victory in the Belmont Stakes. “In the Derby, he was behind horses in an uncomfortable position – that’s why Victor was so aggressive with him. We were lucky to get by that one.”

An incident only minutes before the Derby had also concerned Baffert and could be one reason for – and, trust me, it is strange to write the next few words – a sub-par effort in his victory in the Run for the Roses.

The normally calm and cool American Pharoah had, in Baffert’s words, “lost it” during the “walk over,” the journey around the first-turn from the barns to the paddock. Fans on both sides of the track had shouted their encouragement and cheered the favorite, and – in a rare display that he might be a mortal flesh-and-blood creature – the colt lost his cool.

“I had some anxious moments when he was coming up there,” Baffert admitted after the Derby triumph. “Everybody was walking and screaming. He got a little hot. We finally got him in [the paddock]. We got him wet down. Finally, he shut it down. After that, he cooled off.”

From his energy-wasting pre-race jitters to Espinoza’s efforts to get American Pharoah home, it is impossible to look at the colt’s Kentucky Derby effort as being close to one of his best efforts of 2015.

But despite his struggles on Derby Day, American Pharoah earned the roses, turning back a talented group of 3-year-olds. What I believe will look more remarkable next year is when we see what his Derby opponents do on the track while the winner launches his new career in the Coolmore breeding shed.

My personal ranking of American Pharoah’s 2015 racing moments looks like this:
1. Triumph in the Kentucky Derby
2. Belmont Stakes victory to win the Triple Crown
3. Dramatic career-capper in Keeneland’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic
4. Runner-up finish to Keen Ice in Saratoga’s Travers
5. Soggy Preakness triumph in a deluge of rain at Pimlico
6. Eight-length Arkansas Derby victory at Oaklawn Park
7. Comeback romp in the slop in Oaklawn’s Rebel Stakes fin 2015 debut that followed six-month layoff
8. Remained calm despite a crush of people from all sides after Belmont Stakes win
9. Displaying the same calm in crowded winner’s circle after Triple Crown celebration a week after the Belmont at Churchill Downs
10. Posing for pictures and greeting countless visitors outside Baffert’s Barn43 at Churchill Downs during his historic Triple Crown quest

Again, I’ll admit to some bias in putting the Kentucky Derby atop the accomplishments by American Pharoah during his Triple Crown year. But again, that bias does not mean I am wrong in that assessment.

Most of all, I am thankful – like most, if not all, who are reading these words – that I was around to witness and experience each of American Pharoah’s moments during a very, very good year. VT