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TrackNotes: American Pharoah's Long Strange Trip

Triple Crown champion American Pharoah wasted no time in galloping on out of Elmont, New York, and was on the road well before noon Sunday to get back to his home base, Churchill Downs.

Looking every bit the returning hero, 'Pharoah landed back in Louisville to greet a group of reporters.

After watching 'Pharoah's run-out after the wire in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, it wasn't very surprising to hear trainer Bob Baffert talk of 'Pharoah's recovery from the race.

"He's a little tired, but we're probably more tired," Baffert said with a grin. "He's so tough, a couple days and he'll be back to normal.

In the kind of hindsight that only horse racing seems to possess, we found out that American Pharoah may have actually needed the Kentucky Derby to be in shape for the Triple Crown grind.

"The only time he came back blowing was after the Kentucky Derby," Baffert said. "He was tired. That was the one. But he spent himself on the way over there (in the walkover at the Derby) pretty good, plus he needed a nice, hard race."

As many horses have since the turn of the century, American Pharoah defied current common wisdom. On paper, he wasn't bred to get the 1.5-mile distance of the Belmont. He couldn't have been ready for the third race in five weeks. He had never had a race over the Belmont course.

As must happen in an achievement like this, everything came into place for him.

To wit:

* Learning to win in the Del Mar Futurity and the Front Runner. The Front Runner turned out to be a key race as the top three, 'Pharoah, Calculator and Texas Red all won their next races.

* Easy wins in the Rebel (getting experience in the slop as well) and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, although we now know they might have been too easy, conditioning-wise.

* Winning the Kentucky Derby. Doing everything he had to do to win the Derby. If he had lost in the crazy Derby stampede, would Baffert still have run him in both the Preakness and Belmont?

* Getting a sent-from-heaven downpour minutes before the Preakness, giving him a sloppy course he didn't mind at all - and the others apparently did.

* Materiality running dismal races in both the Derby and Belmont, especially the Belmont where he appeared to be the only other horse with enough speed and tactical talent to challenge what turned out to be 'Pharoah's easy lead. Materiality finished last.

* Drawing into a Belmont field whose predominant strengths were not only unsuited to defeating 'Pharoah's tactical abilities, but any horse remotely like him.

* Post positions: 15 in the Derby, 1 in the Preakness, 5 in the Belmont. Only the Belmont post was perfect, but with his turn of foot, he made the other two work. And great rides by jockey Victor Espinoza, although I think 'Pharoah was in charge.

* Finding a reserve of energy and stamina that most of us cynically don't believe any horse possesses today. He surprised us on that count.

So where does this horse stand in the pantheon? Well, he won the Triple Crown, so he is on that mountaintop.

His 2:26 and three-fifths, nearly identical to Gallant Man in 1957, was the sixth-fastest in Belmont history, slightly faster than his immediate Triple Crown predecessor Affirmed. That was good for the second-fastest Belmont by a Triple Crown winner. His 13.5 combined lengths of victory in the three races also ranks sixth all-time and the best since Secretariat. And as with Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed before him, 'Pharoah was in the lead at every point of call in the Belmont.

American Pharoah certainly breathes the rarefied air when it comes to winning the Crown, but as fast and impressive as his Belmont was, it doesn't touch Secretariat's; no one's does. Here's fascinating video proof.

Across the hall at The Beachwood Reporter's Broadcast Division, Jim "Coach" Coffman raised the specter of sadness, emptiness after American Pharoah's Crown win, leaving us horseplayers without mystique, hope, anything to live for, much like the pall that may engulf the ivied park on Clark when (?) the Cubs win the World Series.

I think the Coach might be right about this one vis a vis the Cubs, but I wanted American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown. I didn't think he would, given all of the conventions of horseplaying and the chances against him, but he rose above it all, proving me and a lot of other wiseguys wrong.

One reason I wanted to see a Crown is because a 38-year drought is just the kind of thing that would cause instant-gratification America to demand a change to the Triple Crown rules. Sure, they've changed before, but that was a long time ago and this format is rock solid. There are some in the industry today who prefer a change. In this age of everyone makes the playoffs or a play-in or wild card or whatever, even with losing records, arguments for changing the Triple Crown are nothing more than "I want my Maypo" for the self-esteem crowd and thinly disguised money grabs. Hopefully, 'Pharoah's win shuts these people up.

My desire to see him to win the Crown wasn't because I personally needed to see it or the game was anything less to me because of the drought. My interest in the game never depended on a Crown, as overpaid columnists often suggest. I was never "long suffering." With today's discouraging breeding practices, I just wanted to see a horse that could do it. Thoroughbred race horses are the only athletes who truly let their performances speak for themselves. It's all they do; all they can do.

Selfishly, if American Pharoah was to win the Crown, I wanted him to win the Belmont in exactly the fashion he did. No questions about it. Through the wire. Clearly the best. Deserving. There have been a lot of fluke horses, fluke races over the years. This was no fluke. He ran all three races like: a Triple Crown winner.

Greedily, I want 'Pharoah to keep running, if he's as resilient as they say he is. Unquestionable legacy is often built by what happens after the Belmont, even for Triple Crown winners. Citation ran afterwards, was out for a year with an injury and ran again after that, becoming the first to win $1 million in earnings. Seattle Slew had nearly the same story but came back after that to beat Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup and win the Stuyvesant in his last race. Affirmed won six major stakes races following his Crown, including a win over Spectacular Bid. Spectacular Bid, even after losing his Belmont, went on to win 10 major stakes races to establish himself as one of the best horses of the past 30 years.

The Jim Dandy, Travers, Haskell, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Breeders' Cup, I'd love to see starts in any three of those. If he does, they're most likely his last. If he doesn't run, "five-week wonder" might enter into the vernacular. If he wins even two of them, especially the Breeders' Cup Classic, he's a horse you talk about on a regular basis for a long time.

Trainers often wax lyrical; "the horse will tell us what he wants." I hope Baffert and Zayat Stables are listening to this one.

Not The Savior
I would never say American Pharoah will "save horse racing" by continuing to run and win this year. (Contrary to this report, Belmont Day did not have full fields in every race. The Woody Stephens and Ogden Phipps each had only six runners and no Show betting, and the Easy Goer Stakes ran only three.) The lords of the game are so boneheaded, they'll continue to screw things up.

Although television ratings this year were down slightly from last year, I'll bet many of those who did watch who might not have watched another race this year will continue to follow 'Pharoah's season. Also, a record 392,195 people, admittedly many of them civilians, attended Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont to catch the three races. It would have been even more if Belmont hadn't limited its attendance to 90,000.

It wouldn't be a bad idea to build a marketing plan along the lines of "Thought That Was Exciting? Check Out a Racetrack Near You!" And have every track use the campaign.

Yeah, right.

In The Vogue
Unlike some cheap congressman "making the rounds" to spread his heinous propaganda, American Pharoah, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza fed the media beast with joy and wonderment.

Early Sunday, the big three did the obligatory meet and greet with the morning coffee crowd from Rockefeller Center and NBC's Today Show. It was nice; no screeching tourists from Topeka behind crowd barriers with N-B-C acronym signs telling us they're from Topeka. And that 'Pharoah's a real ham with the cameras rolling.

Jimmy Fallon again mistook sophomoric smart-assedness with comedy when he put good-natured Espinoza through this exhibition of "racing." Thankfully, Victor kicked butt, just like on Saturday.

Although it seems a no-brainer, it was faithfully reported by many outlets that Sports Illustrated would feature American Pharoah on its cover. Huffington Post, however, took exception to the scene itself and I have to say I agree. If I had been there, I'd certainly be able to remember and describe everything I saw, would have saved the images via the home DVR, and would have been really PO'd at all the people with their arms up.

But stunning news came midweek when Zayat Stables said American Pharoah would grace the cover of Vogue. Production, lay off the Photoshop! Gaunt and pouty is no look for a Triple Crown winner. Baffert, maybe, but not the horse.

Bob's Burgers
We learned early on that Baffert and Espinoza will be donating much of their winnings to various causes. Baffert even squeezed $200,000 in charity grease out of the Home of the Whopper by allowing the Burger King to join him for the race and in the winner's circle. Baffert will reportedly give that money to the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund.

Ticket Tale
This story pops every time, but this year it finally happened. Buying a ticket to win on American Pharoah and keeping it as a souvenir is one thing, but in true American fashion, entrepreneurs are taking greater advantage of the situation. I have a feeling Rick Harrison would pay . . . $2.

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Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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