Monday, June 8, 2015

It's Not Supposed to be Easy

Taken from American Pharoah's FB page

I grew up in rural Idaho in the sixties, in a town of about 700. We had a party line telephone, which allowed our neighbors to listen in on our conversations and vis versa. We had a black and white TV that got three channels pretty consistently. Our TV viewing was limited: The Wonderful World of Disney on Friday nights, Masterpiece theater on Saturday nights if my parents were gone, The Long Ranger every morning between when my parents left the house and when the school bus picked us up, and sports on the weekends. My love of football started very early in my life and I was a huge Dolphin fan during the Shula years, then became a Cowboy's fan under Staubach. Sundays in the fall and winter were days spent watching football and Monday Night Football was a staple in our house. The only other event I watched religiously was the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Why the fascination? It probably started with The Black Stallion. The idea of racing around the mile track at an extended gallop, of pitting my horse against all comers, was a life-long dream. I can remember sitting in the back of my parent's station wagon, staring at my reflection in the glass, when one of my parents asked one of my sibs, what they wanted to be when they grew up. I whispered to myself that I wanted to be a jockey, to ride those very fast horses. I was maybe eight at the time and still completely horse crazy. That dream was almost realized my fifteenth year when I was asked to start ponying horses at the track in Pocatello, ID. I was fifteen and weighed 70 lbs, but had incredibly strong hands and upper body strength. It didn't hurt that I walked and talked like a guy. Unfortunately for me, I gained twelve inches in height and 30 or so pounds in the four months prior to my sixteenth birthday and my dreams of being the first woman to win the Derby crashed and burned around me.

As a young adult/not-so-young adult, I have fed my obsession with the Triple Crown through reading: Bluegrass by Borden Deal, The Most Glorious Crown by Marvin Drager (most excellent book about the Triple Crown), and the entire Black Stallion series by Walter Farley. I watched the match race where Ruffian broke her legs, then read the advances in equine science that resulted from that race in Equus a year or so later. I also read Black Gold, King of the Wind, Born to Trot all by Marguerite Henry and Man O War by Walter Farley. I knew I would never be able to ride in the Kentucky Derby, but it didn't destroy my love of the Thoroughbred.

And I have never lost my fascination in watching the three races. 
I don't think I have missed watching the races since 1973, when Secretariat won the Belmont like he was the only horse in the race. I can still watch in open mouth amazement at that race. In 1976, Bold Forbes won the Kentucky Derby on May 5th, and in his honor I named my first foal out of Queenie Bold Ace, who was born on the same day. In 1977, Seattle Slew won all three. And then in 1978, Affirmed battled Alydar for the Triple Crown. Those were three of the most intense races of my young life, with Alydar being the only horse to finish second in all three of the Crown races behind Affirmed. I was an avid Affirmed fan. I read in The Most Glorious Crown that Affirmed and Alydar raced something like eleven times and in those races they were only separated by a total of three lengths. Affirmed won all but one.
Since 1978 I have watched the Kentucky Derby every year. In the years before the advent of the internet, I would watch the hours of coverage leading up to the Kentucky Derby in order to evaluate the horses that would be running. The coverage of the Kentucky Derby pre-internet actually covered the horses, mostly because that was the only way people had access to the information. Now, I look up the contenders on the internet a couple of weeks before and survey their accomplishments: what races they have won, which ones they have raced in, who they have raced against. Then I make my guesses, because guesses they are, and I wait for the race.
The Kentucky Derby is ran at Churchill Downs, in Kentucky. The race is a mile and a quarter, longer than most of the races the colts have ran so far. It is ran on the first Saturday of May.

The Kentucky Derby challenge lies in earning enough points in earlier races (The Wood Memorial, The Florida Derby, The Louisiana Derby, The Santa Anita Derby, The Arkansas and the Blue Grass Stakes) to be amongst the top twenty three year olds racing. This is a change from the earlier way the Kentucky Derby racers were picked and this change is designed to make the Kentucky Derby more competitive. The field is limited to the top 20 horses. A field of 20 is a lot of horses, which by the nature of horse racing, can lend itself to putting a horse in a position from which they can not win.

The Kentucky Derby is the first step. The second step is the Preakness Stakes.
The Preakness Stakes is held in Baltimore, Maryland at the Pimlico racecourse. It is over a mile and 3/16ths or 9.5 furloughs.  The field for this race is typically smaller and calls for a horse that races faster over a shorter course. The Thoroughbred used to be bred for either speed or stamina. The speed horses would be raced over shorter distances, or used to set an early pace in a longer race, with the intention of tiring out the longer running horses for a stable mate or another horse under the same trainer. There are horses entered in this race that have not been ran in the Derby and they have been prepped by their trainers with the intention of stealing the Preakness from the Derby winner.

All of you who don't think that's fair, do not understand the definition of a great horse. The Triple Crown winner is the fastest horse over three different distances in five weeks. Not the fastest horse over three different distances against all of the same horses. Just so you know.
There have been thirteen horses in the past 37 years (prior to 2015) that have won the first two races in the Triple Crown. 

It's not supposed to be easy.

The final race is the Belmont Stake, set at the Belmont racetrack in New York, the same race track that The Black ran on. It is the longest race in the Triple Crown, a mile and a half, and it's ran three weeks after the Preakness. The thing that is the most amazing thing about the Belmont, is the size of the racetrack. The racetrack is huge. In the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the horse begins it's move on the final turn, with a short run down the side to the finish line. On the Belmont track, the far turn is still almost a quarter mile away from the finish line. Many of the jockeys racing haven't ran at Belmont before and make their move too early in the race, running their horse out of steam before the real struggle for the lead begins. 

My process has been to pick a Kentucky Derby winner, watch to see who won, and then watch the Preakness to see if they are a good enough horse to win the Preakness two weeks after the Derby. If they do, I watch the Belmont. If they don't, I am back to waiting for the next Kentucky Derby.

This year, I went in and looked at the qualified horses that were able to race in the Derby. I picked American Pharoah to win. He had only lost one race and that was his Maiden. I heard they took the blinders off and put a shadow roll on him and he hasn't lost since. I liked his look and thought he had an opportunity to put his breeding and his heart into the race.

We watched it in Buffalo Wild Wings. I was the only one yelling at the TV, which embarassed the hell out of T, but I didn't care. American Pharoah won.

Then came the Preakness, which I watched on my phone. American Pharoah went to the front at the start and held that position for the entire race. There was one small challenge at the top of the stretch, but American Pharoah ran away with the race while his jockey set quiet on his back (didn't have to reach for his whip one time).

The Belmont was raced on Saturday, while I was camping in the wilds of Wyoming. I didn't have a signal strong enough to get video. I didn't have a signal strong enough to call my mother and have her hold her phone up to the TV so I could hear the race. Luckily, J had packed an emergency radio and I was able to tune in a sport's station from Denver that was broadcasting the race.

American Pharoah went to the front early. He held the lead for the entire race. As they topped the far turn and headed down the backstretch he extended his lead. He ran away from the rest of the field, finishing ahead by five and a half lengths.  When I got home I watched the race a dozen times. I don't think Espinoza touched his whip the entire race. He had no need to. 

For the first time in 37 years we had a Triple Crown winner. 
He was the only horse to race in all three races. He ran most of the race with his ears pricked and his stride devouring the track.

I know there is a lot of bad things around horse racing and the Thoroughbred. I know a lot of the lower level horses are tossed aside, that accidents happen, and that horses come to tragic ends. There is a lot bad that is involved, but that is true of any horse event that combines large amounts of money with horses. Think of what TWH horses go through in their training, or what QH horses experience with their build and early show record. Reflect on what breeding for a halter winning show horse did to the QH industry when every one bred to Impressive, unknowing that he had the genetic mutation HYPP, which was passed on to 50% of his offspring, and how his owner kept breeding him even after the mutation was discovered. Even the Scottsdale Arabian show has issues, especially in the breeding for halter horses and the training that they do for show. Any time big money and horses get together, horses suffer.

I watch because it's magical. 

I stood in a National forest in Wyoming, staring at a pink granite rock lying at my feet, tears streaming down my face, as the race caller announced that American Pharoah had won the Belmont and the Triple Crown.

Sometimes your heroes can be horses. On Saturday, it was American Pharoah.


  1. Okay, this made me choke up!

    My mom got me the Marguerite Henry box set for Christmas one year and I read and re-read them for years and years. I too read all of the Walter Farley books. All of them, even the harness racing one. They had them at our school library in PR. I'd re-read them over and over, and be transported by his race scenes. It was like the whole world would disappear. Of course The Black was my favorite. So many dreams of my own stemmed from his books!

    Watching that race was like watching a Walter Farley book come alive.

    Thank you, again, for insisting that I watch too!

    1. I'm glad you got to see it . . .

      I had not put together that there are a bunch of people out there that had never watched a horse win all three races. I'm glad that you and your mom were able to experience the magic that is involved in winning the Triple Crown.

      Speaking of Walter Farley, the book The Black and The Girl gave me hope to someday be able to ride in a race against male jockeys. It's interesting to me that the jockey field is still so limited in female riders. I don't think any one could accuse Walter Farley of being a feminist, but that is what The Black and The Girl was to me - pre-feminist literature. It went against every thing my father stood for - he was a strict sexist, especially with his own children - which made it even more appealing to me. And he introduced the idea of working with the horse, rather than fighting against the horse, in the book The Blood Bay Colt. And I too, read and re-read them to the point of them falling apart.

  2. A beautiful tribute to what this sport means in your life. I don't watch the races, but I love reading how it has affected people. I have a question that isn't meant as a judgment or anything, but since you have read so many books and are educated on the industry I thought you might know. Why are these races run at such an early age? Is there a reason they don't push this series (and all racing) back to 6-8 years of age when the horses are more mature? I don't know the history behind it and have always wondered why they run 2 and 3 year olds.

    1. The age of Thoroughbreds in racing started in 1776, in England, when the breed was first established. American followed the format when horse racing got started over here.

      TB's are raced at two and three because that is when the races are the most competitive with the largest fields. It's like watching first high school (2 year old) and then college (3 year old) sports. All of the horses in these races are running against horses of their same age, and none of them are tested yet, so there is a lot more variation in performance, which leads to some guess work when handicapping them. And let's face it, this sport is about the betting side of racing. If people didn't bet there wouldn't be any races.

      By the time they are three, racing horses are settling into their jobs and their athletic performance is developing rapidly. And all of the horses are within a couple of months in age. TB's are bred to be born as close to January 1 as possible, because they are all given that birthday, whether they are born in January or in October. By being born as close to January 1 as possible, they are given the maximum amount of time to grow before being raced. Older horses, especially four and five year olds, have the physical advantage of on average 10 lengths in speed over three year olds, but the races they can run in utilize handicapping, which is a change in the weight they are expected to carry in those races. Older horses carry more weight than younger horses, in order to level the playing fielfd.

      TB's are not the only breed being expected to perform young. QH horses are started at one and being shown under saddle by two. They are expected to spin and slide stop at a very young age, without, perhaps, the pounding stress of galloping a mile or so, but QH's have issues with early break downs due to the stress of turns and stops on their legs - it's just not so widely publicized.

      The other thing I find interesting is that the format for earning a spot in the Kentucky Derby has changed and is no longer based on Graded Earnings, but rather on points earned in some of the races. This puts the focus more on the races and performance at three than on the two year old races. This is a major shift in expectation for the Derby. And I think it also allows a horse to qualify that hasn't raced much as a two year old. The points that are awarded are designed to favor the three year old races.

      That is the other thing that has changed, at this level. The horses aren't raced as frequently as they were in the past. And the length of their racing career is shortened, again, due to wanting to protect their investment as a breeding stallion. It sounds like the breeding rights (just the breeding rights) to American Pharoah were sold for $20 million dollars prior to his winning the Triple Crown. In four years or so, we will see if that pays off and if he can sire another winner.

      So, in a nutshell, the age was established in England when the breed was created. TBs were bred to race. At the age of three is when they are the most competitive without the need for handicapping, due to a larger field of potential race horses and the similarities in age (separated by a couple of months). This makes for the most competitive betting possible. And it is all about the money.

    2. Thanks for the answer! I was always curious. I heard somewhere that the owner isn't planning on retiring American Pharoah just yet due to how much the horse truly loves to run. He plans on trying to be the first to win all the races in the Breeders Cup with him as well to show that the horse can not only do it with the youngens but can hold his own as he matures. Will be interesting to see if they stick to that plan or not with how much money is at stake in breeding him.

      I don't judge the industry and am actually quite surprised at all the negative press they are getting now that we have a Triple Crown winner. I have more negative posts in my newsfeed than positive ones which I find sad in the face of such a wonderful horse who looked like he was in pure bliss during that run.

  3. Watching the 3 races has never been a priority for me (mostly because I usually have other things going on at those times :/ ) & I was working as jump crew during the Belmont, so I didn't think I'd get to see that one either. But they streamed it in the show office, & a bunch of us (including riders!) all crammed in there to watch & were all screaming & jumping up & down. I had goosebumps, it was SOOOO amazing to watch. This total stranger & I ended up hugging & crying together, & even now typing this, I'm tearing up again remembering it. I'll probably always remember the feeling of watching him & cheering him on. Amazing!

    (I'm a frequent reader of your blog, I just don't comment very often. But I also have a gray Arab, so your blog really resonates with me!) :)

  4. Thanks for a great explanation of why American Pharoah's Triple Crown was so remarkable My husband had to tell me to calm down I kept yelling Oh My God I can't believe it over and over at the top of my lungs.

  5. Love this post! We were in NY a few weeks ago and went to Belmont Park (bucket list - see a horse race live). We watched horses exercised in the morning and races in the afternoon. The track is amazingly huge! Tonalist the horse that won the Belmont Stakes last year and ruined California Chromes chances at the Triple Crown was being exercised that morning. He's big, fit and beautiful in person and still racing! I know it's a controversial sport but, what sport isn't without controversy anymore. S in Colorado