Jun 12 2015

American Pharoah – Inspiring yes, but can he captivate new racing fans?

In June of 1978, at Belmont Park, Affirmed didn’t just win the Triple Crown. He fought for it. He dug in when confronted in the stretch by his adversary, Alydar, looked him in the eye and whinnied, “Hoy no compadre.” Laz Barerra taught him that.

In that moment, countless new racing fans were born. Ask a group of fans between the age of 50 and 60 today what got them hooked on horse racing, and the vast majority of replies will begin with the words, “Affirmed and Alydar.”

A smattering will attribute their first interest in a horse named “Seattle Slew,” who won the Triple Crown in 1977. He capped off his trio of wins in the Belmont Stakes by defeating Run Dusty Run by 4 lengths, while the trip comments noted it was a “handy score.”

Since Slew’s victory preceded Affirmed by only one year, you have to wonder why so many racing fans (myself included) refer to Affirmed as the horse that got them interested in the sport.

The answer should be obvious – it’s the manner Affirmed won the Belmont Stakes. He gutted out a victory in the most thrilling way, against the worthiest of opponents. Nothing captivates like competition.

In 1977 I was seventeen years old and living in the Saratoga, New York region. Seattle Slew sparked an interest in me about horse racing, but it was just an ember … that could have extinguished or ignited. In the summer following Slew’s Triple Crown victories I visited Saratoga racetrack two or three times. He did not race there that summer and my ember was smoldering.

In 1978, the moment Affirmed crossed the finish line in the Belmont Stakes, my ember was set ablaze. That summer I purposely took a job working a night shift, so that my days would be free to go to Saratoga racetrack. My routine was the same every day. Work from 11:00pm until 7:00am, sleep for 4 hours, go to the track, come home, eat and sleep another 2-3 hours, and then back to work.

American Pharoah Belmont Finish Line (PM)

Photo courtesy of Penelope P. Miller/America’s Best Racing.

Now what does this all have to do with American Pharoah? He did his job – he won the Triple Crown and broke the drought of 37 years, and no doubt has inspired some casual fans to be more interested in horse racing. My point is this … he did it in Seattle Slew like fashion. Inspiring is not the same as captivating, the latter being to “attract and hold the attention of someone.”

American Pharoah has gotten the public’s attention. Now, can he captivate an entire generation of new horse racing fans like Affirmed did? Or will he have to settle for inspiring a lesser number of fans like Seattle Slew did?

I believe American Pharoah still has an opportunity to snag the bigger prize and captivate many more fans than Seattle Slew did, because something exists now that did not in 1977 … The Breeders’ Cup, the culmination of the racing season, where champions are tested. And this year, the possibilities are tantalizing for some year-end captivating competition.

The winners of the past seven consecutive Triple Crown races are all in training. They are: American Pharoah, Tonalist, California Chrome, and Palace Malice.

I know I’m dreaming big, but what if they all make it to the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic? And what if Shared Belief recovers from his injury in time to join them? We’re talking about a “Field of Dreams” here.

Let’s keep dreaming. What if the race chart for American Pharoah in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic were to read as follows?

American Pharoah broke alertly, establishing an early lead, while being pursued in earnest by California Chrome down the backside. On the far turn California Chrome swung up to engage American Pharoah, but was unable to get by him. As he retreated, Palace Malice came through an opening on the rail to wrestle the lead away from American Pharoah at the top of the stretch. From there to the 1/16 pole these two dueled, before American Pharoah regained the lead. In the final 100 yards Tonalist and Shared Belief came with bold runs, but American Pharoah held on determinedly for the victory as the three of them hit the wire together.

Would American Pharoah winning a “Grand Slam” of horse racing captivate an entirely new generation of horse racing fans?

I truly hope we get to find out.

Neal Headshot2
By Neal Benoit

7 comments on “American Pharoah – Inspiring yes, but can he captivate new racing fans?

  1. I attended my first Triple Crown race in 1976, the Preakness. Bold Forbes was favored (again Barerra) but he hooked up with Honest Pleasure early and Elecutionist came on to win @ 10/1. I was captivated by the top class racing as I had been visiting Penn National & Pocono Downs until then. We went to the Belmont that year to see Bold Forbes win after a series of long gallops by Barrera to increase his stamina. He really didn’t have the breeding to go that far and he had already won the Kentucky Derby.
    In October 1976 I made my semi-annual trip to California to visit relatives and go to the races and I made it home in time to see Wide World of Sports covering the Champagne. Seattle Slew blew them away and I was hooked. I went to the Wood in ’77 and all 3 Triple Crown races to see Slew win. There was never a doubt in my mind. I bought my “Seattle Slew Triple Crown” t-shirts on the way in to Belmont, I was that sure. I still have the photo on the wall that I took of Slew at the top of the stretch all alone. First unbeaten Triple Crown winner to this day. In ’78 I attended all 3 Triple Crown races again and stood at the finish line @ the Belmont. It was a rivalry beyond comparison, but while that journey was making headlines Seattle Slew was battling a life-threatening blood disorder. Doesn’t seem like many people remember that. He eventually recovered and made it back to the races with a new trainer. After three preps he beat Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup @ 1/18. Two weeks later he won the Woodward Stakes and Affirmed stayed on the sidelines. Another two weeks later in the 1 1/2 mile Jockey Club Gold Cup Slew lost to Exceller by a diminishing nose after being passed in the stretch after 6 furlongs in 1:09 & change with Cordero on board. Affirmed was a well beaten 5th after his saddle slipped. My point is this, after a lengthy explanation; Slew didn’t have the rivalry Affirmed & Alydar had but gained more respect throughout the thoroughbred industry with his narrow loss in the JCGC after showing the determination and heart that Affirmed & Alydar showed, but did so after a life threatening illness. Not many champions have done that, if any. And his breeding record only added to his accomplishments

    Tom Pendergast on
    • Thank you Tom for your heartfelt comments regarding Seattle Slew. As a 17-year old I did not fully comprehend the greatness of this horse. It was in later years that I came to appreciate just how special he really was. I was so happy to get to visit him in 1991 at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky. Click here. to see a documentary about Seattle Slew made by ESPN Classic. It’s very well done.

  2. Neal, Thanks for your fine post about how a Triple Crown created a devoted fan based on the nature of the challenge. There are lots of ways for more fans to be created beyond a Triple Crown winner. I believe the handling of AP by Baffert will create more fans. The access offered since the win is absolutely amazing and to be commended. He will have to run a few more times to grab the attention of his casual fans to get them to pay attention to the day he is racing. I think to “educate” casual fans, there should be ways to offer Daily Double, Pick 3 and Pick 4 tickets that simply offer AP as the race single as many of his fans would want to make such a wager.

    For me as a 9 year old I remember seeing a black and white photo of Seattle Slew with a white border and the word “Purina” at the bottom. It was a give away by a feed rep to our family, because we bought supplements from Purina for our dairy calves and Purina was the official feed of the Slew. About that time I was given my first Black Stallion novel written by Walter Farley. His description of the thrill of riding a horse at breakneck speed made me want to be a jockey. The Slew became my Black Stallion. By the time I got to high school aside from the Triple Crown, my interest in racing waned, was rejuvenated by the first few Breeders’ Cups, but since no one I knew was a racing fan, lost interest again. Even though my wife’s parents attended the Preakness every year it wasn’t until we were 9 years into our marriage that we bought tickets and joined them. Our initial foray was actually driven by my wife and I reading “Seabiscuit”, by Laura Hillenbrand. I read it because she is a fellow Kenyon College grad and it was getting wide world acclaim. The book was of great interest to me because it was historical and a story of a a horse achieving greatness. Learning of the accomplishments of Seabiscuit, I wanted to attend the Santa Anita Handicap and go to Pimlico. We did both in 2004, which of course was Smarty Jones year. His Triple Crown try gave us so much drama and was followed by Afleet Alex’s dramatic Preakness. All of these wonderful horses provided drama and entertainment. Over time I’ve discovered Steve Byk’s fine radio program, subcribe to the Blood-Horse and Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred and found your website. We have met many good people whether it is at Santa Anita, Saratoga or Pimlico. Needless to say I am a devoted fan, but it took historical context, current stars and good experiences at multiple racing venues to create a life long fan.

  3. Neal, your commentary was interesting, but I just can’t agree with your analysis. Yes, just because American Pharoah made it look easy, certainly does not mean it was. Racing has changed in the last 40 years–the fields have gotten larger, less time between triple crown races and multiple other variables. The other contenders were strong horses, and AP proved he could win taking the lead, closing big, running in the mud, and handling record number screaming crowds. If that is not enough to snag the attention of future horse racing enthusiasts, I am not sure what will.
    Fellow horse racing enthusiast, Karen

    • Thanks for your comment Karen. Just to clarify one point, you said “less time between triple crown races” … I don’t believe that has changed. In modern times it’s always been 2 weeks between Ky Derby and Preakness, and then 3 weeks after that to the Belmont Stakes. But, I agree with you, what American Pharoah did was not easy … which is why I’m so hopeful that we get to see more from him before he’s retired. To defeat talented older horses in the Fall, like the ones I listed, should captivate even more fans. Thanks again!

  4. The climax of the movie Seabiscuit was his match race with War Admiral. The entire nation listened in as West met East. Mano a Mano fascinates us whether it’s a great heavyweight championship fight or Federer vs Nadal or David vs Goliath. Just need a little extra drama and hype and TV these days knows how to provide it.
    Zayat (a complicated controversial figure) is offered more money than he could win in the Breeders Cup by sponsors to take on ? for a Match Race in September with BC to follow. Weeks of lead up to the race. Who’s going to win played out 27 different ways. That difference of opinion,as they say, is what makes a horse race

    Alyosha Zim on
  5. Neal, After watching the American Pharoah parade at Churchill Downs with all big race days I can’t help but notice that the gate crew wear nice shirts and khakis. Think of Keeneland, Saratoga etc. Yet the grooms and other handlers of the horses, who are just as much in the television eye are not invisible to viewers. They regualrly are poorly attired, which probably shouldn’t be surprising given their pay. I suspect any casual fans would have been surprised by the “parade” of American Pharoah Saturday night. He is a superstar. Shouldn’t those handling him be outfitted bybwither the Zayats or Baffert stable to reflect his status? For the Santa Anita parade I see two outriders in fancily decorated lead ponies maybe with Zayat colors braided in their manes. The outriders will have a banner on a pole proclaiming AP as the Triple Crown winner maybe designed similarly to the blanket that he wore at CD on Saturday night. The banner should be a lot like the ones you see the Palomino equestrian groups have in the Rose Bowl Parade or preceding a band in a Thanksgiving Day parade. (Come to think of it maybe some of those cool Palomino groups should be invited to be a part of the parade with all their shiny silver and sombreros). Any way behind the lead ponies and banner could come AP lead by Jimmy Barnes and the grooms. Jimmy and the grooms should have nice button down shirts with the Zayat silks embroidered on one shirt sleeve and on the chest a golden crown with the words “American Pharoah 2015 Triple Crown Winner” surrounding the crown. If corporate endorsements must be honored, Monster Energy, Wheels Up, or whoever could be a corporate sponsor on the other shirt sleeve. They should all have nice dress pants, they can be a cool black if khaki is too boring, but no untucked shirts and no faded jeans no matter how expensive. Now that I think of it SA has some nice carriages and wagons, maybe Baffert and the Zayats ride in them with signs on them too.

    If you think of all other major sports, support staff are given a uniform of some kind. Stables or trainers should do the same for the grooms at least for the race walkover and time in the paddock. If you think and dress classy, you will convey the idea to viewers.
    American Pharoah can’t help draw new fans all on his own.

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