On the first Saturday in June in 1973, Secretariat went to the post in the Belmont Stakes, trying to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. In the following two minutes and twenty-four seconds, he gave the greatest performance a horse has ever given. Listening to announcer Chic Anderson’s call (“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!”), one cannot ignore the incredulity in his voice. Horses were not supposed to win a grueling race like the Belmont with this kind of dominance.
This past June, American Pharaoh went into the gate for the Belmont. He was also trying to break a Triple Crown drought. It had been thirty-seven years since Affirmed’s Belmont victory. Since then, thirteen horses had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown but failed in the Belmont. American Pharoah wouldn’t fail. His Triple Crown victory became the sports highlight of 2015.
A racehorse typically runs once every six to eight weeks. The Triple Crown is a series of three races in five weeks, at three different tracks and three different distances, all of which are further than these horses have ever run. It’s restricted to three-year-olds, which means that a horse has only one shot at it. The Triple Crown has been won only 12 times since 1919. It’s one of the most difficult feats in sports.
In 1973, horse racing led all other sports in attendance by a wide margin. By the time American Pharoah won the Belmont, attendance had dropped off by almost 50 percent. There are reasons for this. Back then, if you wanted to bet on a race you had to do it at the track. Today, fans can bet online, at home. And the focus of the sports fan is split. We have around-the-clock cable channels. Around-the-clock sports. Marketing and advertising are more important than ever. And racing has no idea how to market itself. Even if sports fans don’t consciously realize it, they are investing in a season-long story. Every other sport makes this clear, but racing doesn’t. It has a million stories, and a unique draw: The horse. But racing doesn’t capitalize on its uniqueness.
Unlike sleek stadiums sponsored by cellphone carriers or big-box stores, walk into a racetrack and you go back in time. Racing prides itself on its history. The identity of Churchill Downs is the Kentucky Derby, a cultural event where women wear hats that cost as much as your first car, and everyone sings “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses go to the post. Like the spirit of New York, Belmont Park is impossibly huge, almost too big to navigate. The Belmont Stakes isn’t known as the Test of the Champion for nothing. Horses get their hearts broken at Belmont. And out West, Santa Anita’s known for its sun-drenched art deco architecture and the palm trees that have been here since the track’s opening in 1934.
Rather than building on this rich history, though, racetracks try to bring in fans with “fan experiences” like food trucks, bands or microbrew festivals. How can the sport gain new fans if people go to the track and never even see a race?
When American Pharaoh won the Belmont, those who had never been to a horse race, even sports analysts and reporters, said that they had never heard a crowd that loud. Thirty seven years of frustration became a roar of joy that lasted long after the race was over. Racing has a legitimate star whose accomplishment is inextricable from the history of the sport. American Pharoah’s dominating win in the Belmont was a Yasiel Puig bat flip. It was universally understood. Anyone who was at Belmont Park that day became a fan, even if they knew nothing about racing.
But unlike other sports, where players can have careers that span decades, racing’s stars can have careers spanning months. American Pharoah will only race a few more times before being retired to stud. But in racing, new stories happen every day. The sport levels the playing field, sometimes brutally. Just as the Derby can be won by a royally-bred horse from one of America’s finest families, like Orb, it can also be won by a mud-colored little horse like Mine That Bird, taken by trailer from New Mexico to Kentucky to win at 50-1.
How do you recognize courage in an animal? Watch a horse flatten his ears against his head, stretch out his neck and lunge towards the finish line and you’ll see these animals as athletes. Listen to a jockey talk about one of his mounts and you’ll realize that they’re individuals. Even the most cynical railbird tears up when an old blue-collar warrior like Wise Dan wins another huge race. This is a horse that should have been, at best, ordinary. But he’s been one of the best horses in the world for the last three years. Horses are honest. They don’t cheat. They don’t lie. They aren’t arrogant. They don’t demand more money. They aren’t jealous of their competitors. They are the perfect sports heroes.
Walking into a racetrack, stepping on discarded tote tickets, hearing the echoing voice of the track announcer, you are enveloped by history. There’s a different vibe here. You’ll buy your program. Go to the paddock to watch the horses being saddled. And as you head for the track you’ll pass the bar, where people are shouting and screaming as they watch a simulcast race from somewhere else in the country. Railbirds will good-naturedly catcall the riders, while also wishing them a safe trip. You’ll learn a lot of Spanish, most of it not fit for polite company.
When you’re at the track, there’s an unspoken understanding that you have at least half an idea of what’s going on, but it’s okay if you don’t — racing fans are eager to share their knowledge. You won’t get judged. People are going to talk to you. You’ll be asked who you like in the fifth, or whether or not California Chrome’s owners blew it by sending him to England (they did). You can ask anyone at the track who’s the greatest horse they’ve ever seen and they will tell you, with a guileless, childlike enthusiasm. And because it’s racing, they will also tell you to the cent how much money they won, or how that son of a bitch beats them every time. Because there’s twenty minutes between races, there’s more time for trash talking and commiserating at the racetrack than there is at any sports ball stadium.
The racegoer has made a pact with himself. He knows he’s going to lose more often than he’ll win. He knows that most of the time, he’s going to see ordinary horses doing ordinary things. But he also knows that every once in awhile, he’s going to hit that big payout. And he’s going to see a horse do something that makes him or her seem chosen by some force we can’t fathom.
Prior to this year you’d hear talk about a Triple Crown, and whether we’d ever have another one. The conversation among fans was, “Will there be another Triple Crown winner before I die?” Some wonder if it should be made easier. Horses are too fragile now. They can have bad luck in one race and the Triple Crown dream fades away. We blamed bad luck but when American Pharoah won, the reason for the drought became clear.
The other 13 horses simply weren’t good enough.
It’s easy to forget, over 37 years, that it takes an exceptional horse to win the Triple Crown. A great horse can win even if he doesn’t run his best race, which is what American Pharoah did when he won the Derby with a subpar (for him) performance. There is an intense focus on this horse. He even made the cover of Vogue. Every move he makes is scrutinized. Whenever he steps out of his stall, hundreds of people are waiting to see him. But horses have to keep proving their worth as champions, so other horses will always line up against him, trying to beat him. But at the same time, everyone in racing wants to celebrate him.
The final start of American Pharoah’s career will be the Breeder’s Cup Classic, at Keeneland Racecourse. This is a $5 million race. It’s the Super Bowl of horse racing. Gentle readers, if you want to see the best racehorse in the world close out his already historic career, tune into NBC on October 31st. When the best horse in the world steps out onto the track, you will become a believer.
And maybe you’ll want to go to the track.
Kay Reindl is a television writer who has worked on Millennium, Twisted and, most recently, MTV’s Scream. She can recite all 12 Triple Crown winners. Ask her on Twitter: @KayReindl.