Column: American Pharoah can be the stuff of legends

Owner Ahmed Zayat greets American Pharoah after he was given a bath following a workout at Belmont Park on Friday.

Owner Ahmed Zayat greets American Pharoah after he was given a bath following a workout at Belmont Park on Friday.

(Al Bello / Getty Images)

Part of winning the Triple Crown of horse racing is having the right name. Even in its misspelled form, American Pharoah seems to have the proper ring.

With something as important and historic as this, there needs to be a majesty of moniker, something Charismatic. Sadly, even that wasn’t enough for the 1999 runner, who hurt his leg on one of his last steps and finished third at the Belmont Stakes, ending his chance for the Triple Crown.

The Triple Crown has been won by, in order, Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).


Even if you don’t know what a Secretariat is, the name will always bring that spine-tingling, 31-length Belmont victory. So it works.

With the rest, if there wasn’t a royalty connotation, or a speed or military reference, there were whole cities to honor; in Omaha’s case, entire states. When he was retired, he went to live in Nebraska and was often honored at the state’s main race track, Ak-Sar-Ben, which is Nebraska spelled backward.

Seattle Slew also had geographical roots. The Taylors of Seattle owned half of him, and the Hills of Florida, who had land near muddy slews in Florida, owned the other half.

Then there is Citation, who had to be the inspiration for naming one of the fastest nonmilitary jet planes in existence.

Then, all this equine flesh greatness was Affirmed 37 years ago and, sadly, not since.

American Pharoah is kingly enough, in name and performance. When he won the Kentucky Derby, he was washed out before the race by crowds and noise, but still, with great urging by his jockey, Victor Espinoza, ruled at the end. By Preakness time, American Pharoah displayed new invincibility, playing in the rain while the others looked for umbrellas or their mommies.

His trainer, a sort of racing royalty with a white crown, said it best Friday after days of questions seeking summary and perspective.


“All Triple Crown horses,” Bob Baffert said, “are just superior.”

All also have fascinating, and often quirky, story lines, as will American Pharoah if he wins Saturday’s Belmont and becomes the 12th member of this exclusive club.

The first member, Sir Barton, didn’t even know he was joining. That’s because, when he won the three races, over a stretch of just 19 days, there was no club.

That came 11 years later, when Gallant Fox took the Triple Crown and a New York Times reporter labeled the three-race sweep. You can assume one of his editors said, “Wait a minute. Some horse named Sir Barton did it 11 years ago.”

That, of course, contradicts the long-held theory that newspaper editors have little worth. In this case, without them, we would be talking about our 10 Triple Crown winners.

Sir Barton wasn’t supposed to win the Kentucky Derby. He was supposed to be a rabbit, a pacesetter, for a better horse. But he forgot to stop setting the pace and ran across the finish line first.

In Gallant Fox’s Triple Crown, the Preakness came first and the Derby eight days later. He was so good he trained in relay style. One horse couldn’t stay with him, so they kept passing the baton. No easy task when you have hooves.

Omaha’s daddy was Gallant Fox, who had been gallant in all but one race. That was the 1930 Travers Stakes, after his Triple Crown, when he lost to a horse named Jim Dandy, a 100-1 shot.


Omaha died in Omaha. As legend has it, when a home economics student at the University of Nebraska Omaha prepares a bad dish, he or she is told to “give it to Omaha.” Toss it out the window.

War Admiral is buried next to his daddy, the fabled Man O’ War. War Admiral may be better known for losing a match race at Pimlico to Seabiscuit than winning his Triple. That might have made a better movie.

Whirlaway was about as cuddly as a rattlesnake. By the time he raced as a 3-year-old in 1941, he had had eight different jockeys, all eventually calling in sick. The next year, Whirlaway didn’t just run, he paraded and helped sell war bonds.

The war was still on in 1943 when Count Fleet lived up to his name. His owner was onetime sportswriter John Hertz, who started a little rental car company. (See, some of us actually find real work). Count Fleet won the Belmont by 25 lengths and everybody said that would never happen again.

The ’46 Triple Crown king is the subject of a book by Marjorie Parker titled: “Assault, The Crippled Champion.” He limped when he walked. He also had no success in thoroughbred breeding barns, but according to reports, found his stride in the pasture with quarter horses.

Citation’s trainer, Jimmy Jones, a man of few words, once said of his star, “My horse could beat anything with hair on it.”


Citation died in 1970 and it was three more years until sportswriters could stop typing the phrase: “Since Citation in 1948, there has been no Triple Crown.”

Now, we just substitute “Affirmed” and “1978.”

There is Secretariat and 31 lengths and enough said. Except maybe that, when he won the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, he hit the 1 1/4-mile mark faster than he did the 1 1/4-mile finish line in the Kentucky Derby.

Seattle Slew, according to Billy Turner — only living trainer of a Triple Crown winner — was once owned by an Indian pension fund.

Like Secretariat and 31 lengths, Affirmed will always share the sentence with Alydar, whom he beat all three times in the Triple Crown by small body parts. But in horse racing, as in life, there is always a last laugh. Turns out, Alydar was a much more successful stud.

And so, there they are. Go get ‘em, American Pharoah. The club needs some new stories.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes