Journalists cried. Strangers high-fived. Many waved winning tickets that never will be cashed. On that glorious afternoon last June, American Pharoah took millions of people somewhere over the rainbow. It felt like first love, without the anguish. Pure joy.
After 37 years, the unicorn finally arrived at Belmont Park, and the most exclusive club in sports had a 12th member. Pharoah’s Triple Crown run made racing mainstream news, lured newbies and inspired hope for a carryover. Skeptics argued that once their hero was retired, most of the Pharoahites would disappear, too.
Trainer Bob Baffert admitted feeling low when his horse of a lifetime went to Ashford Stud in November.
“We all fell in love with him, and it was sad because it was like watching your child leave,’’ Baffert said recently. “We went through maybe 60 days of being depressed about it, but at the same time we have some great memories.’’
Will they overshadow no matter what may happen this spring? Even if undefeated Nyquist swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, would it come close to having the same impact? I suggested to Baffert recently that Pharoah’s breakthrough created a hangover effect. He disagreed.
“I think what Pharoah did, he created more interest in the sport and brought in a lot of new fans,’’ Baffert said. “And I think it will be bigger. I think people are really following it right now to see if they can watch another horse like that, and we’re riding that wave.
“And Nyquist, he’s been perfect. So everybody’s thinking maybe we’re going to get another horse like that.’’
I hope he’s right, and that 2016’s classics don’t have a “been there, done that” vibe. Three races totaling almost four miles in five weeks is a brutal grind for a fragile breed, but Nyquist has the potential to launch the fourth Triple Crown bid in five years.
Thirteen days from Derby 142, his 7-for-7 resume outclasses every challenger, including Baffert’s Mor Spirit. “Right now it’s Nyquist,” Baffert said. “So I think you have him and a lot of horses underneath.’’
Yet even if Nyquist keeps winning, Pharoah’s act is almost impossible to follow. He was one of a kind, and it’s hard to imagine another horse, no matter how dominant, approaching his charisma. His “petting zoo” sessions were love fests, with his temperament almost as remarkable as his talent. Few star racehorses are touchy-feely, but Pharoah’s poise and tolerance were amazing.
The morning after his Breeders’ Cup Classic runaway, Baffert staged one last meet and greet for hundreds at Keeneland. A woman snapping away with her cellphone got within inches of Pharoah’s rump. Many horses would have freaked and lashed out with their hind legs. Pharoah took the intrusion in stride.
“We got so close to him because he was such a kind, sweet and intelligent horse,’’ Baffert said. “I could share him with so many fans, let people touch him, and he’s the only good horse I’ve been able to do that with.’’
He’ll never have another Pharoah, but he has four Derby trophies, two short of Ben Jones’ record, and Mor Spirit never has been worse than second in seven starts. So if Nyquist isn’t at his best, you never can tell.
“The Derby will keep us geared up and keep those competitive juices flowing,’’ Baffert said. “We work hard to get there, but it’s not easy. When you have a horse like Mor Spirit who looks like he’s going to be competitive, it’s an honor to say, ‘Hey, you know what? Maybe there’s a little hope, a little dream there.’ ‘’
Even after the peak experience, the summit still beckons. No matter how much glory, it’s not enough. So if Mor Spirit is surging into the Derby’s stretch, Baffert will be totally in the moment. The passion never fades, even if the Year of the Pharoah can never be duplicated.