Sunday, November 8, 2015

Measures of Greatness

                                                                           Milton C. Toby photo

By Milton C. Toby

Millions of words were written about American Pharoah during his sweep of Thoroughbred racing's so-called "Grand Slam"--victories in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Much more remains to be written, and a recurring theme likely will be assessing where the horse ranks among the sport's best runners.

For someone who writes about racing's history, the question is a tantalizing one: American Pharoah came along at a time when racing desperately needed a hero, no doubt about that. But how good, really, is American Pharoah?

For me, it comes down to these things:

1. Race record--Although I'm not a fan of the contrived "Grand Slam idea," it's difficult to fault a Triple Crown and a Breeders' Cup Classic as collective indicators of a very good horse. But a great horse? Not necessarily. Nor does a loss here and there always disqualify a horse from wearing the mantle of greatness. Secretariat was the best horse I've seen in my lifetime, and despite inexplicable losses he remains the gold standard for greatness in my book.

Race record, standing alone, is not enough. There are other things to consider.

2. The competition--Who finished behind American Pharoah? No one is claiming that the 2012 foal crop was a great one. American Pharoah has no control over his competition, of course, and he defeated every horse that showed up for the Triple Crown races and the Classic. I'm not sure it makes sense to ask anything else of him.

I would, however, be more inclined to judge him a great horse if the others he defeated and his races themselves were more memorable. I was working for The Blood-Horse magazine during the 1970s, and was fortunate enough to see Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed sweep their Triple Crowns. Secretariat's Belmont Stakes, a 31-length victory in 2:24, was the greatest performance I've ever seen; the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry in 1978 was the best Triple Crown series; and Affirmed's driving win over Ayldar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes was the greatest race. In my estimation, American Pharoah falls short in comparison. His races were good, but not great, the victories notwithstanding.

3. The clock--Secretariat established record times in each of his Triple Crown races. American Pharoah set a track record at Keeneland in the Classic, but the colt's clockings generally were more pedestrian. Ironically, Secretariat's Preakness mark was not recognized for almost 40 years.

Canonero II (#9) set a Preakness record that stood for 13 years, until Gate Dancer
lowered the stakes record by two-fifths of a second in 1984.
Winants Brothers/Blood-Horse photo
It happened like this: Concerned about the relatively slow pace in the early going, jockey Ron Turcotte made a bold move on the first turn at Pimlico. He took Secretariat three horses wide and rushed from last to first. Secretariat drew away and finished Sham by 2 1/5 lengths in 1:55, time that was a full second slower than Canonero II's two years earlier. There were immediate questions about the time, which did not seem to match Secretariat's dominant performance.

The electronic timer recorded Secretariat's time for the race as 1:55, but two veteran Daily Racing Form clockers independently caught the colt crossing the finish line in 1:53 2/5, which would have been a new stakes record. A third clocker, working for Pimlico, recorded the winning time as 1:54 2/5. The stewards acknowledged that the timer had malfunctioned and declared 1:54 2/5 as the "official" time. Penny Chenery, who raced Secretariat, lobbied the Maryland Racing Commission for years, asking for a review of the race time. Finally, in 2012, 39 years after the fact, the commission voted unanimously to declare Secretariat's time for the race as 1:53, a Preakness record.

So what can we make of American Pharoah? Is he one of the greats? For me, he is a really good horse.


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