For so long, horse racing has been waiting to exhale.
Then, with a whoosh of a stretch run, there was American Pharoah, winning the Belmont, the Triple Crown and the hearts of millions.
FOR THE RECORD:
American Pharoah: In the June 8 Sports section, a column said that Seattle Slew won horse racing’s Triple Crown in 1973. In fact, Seattle Slew became the 10th Triple Crown winner in 1977. —
What this actually means to the sport is one of those unanswerable questions, at least in the short term.
Do not expect Thursday afternoon attendance at Santa Anita to suddenly be in five figures. But do expect TV ratings and on-track attendance for big races to get a boost across the country. Also expect more people who were on the fence about investing in the sport to do so now. The spoils of victory represented by American Pharoah’s run to glory Saturday are just too tempting.
The fallout from big-moment, big-event sports mania is hard to measure.
Will golf continue to suffer with every drive Tiger Woods hits onto a nearby freeway? Will boxing need a long resuscitation period after leaving so many empty wallets and empty feelings with the Mayweather-Pacquiao bomb?
The post-race dialogue began early Sunday morning, in a big room called the Garden Terrace inside the Belmont Grandstands. It began with a ceremonial unveiling of a banner, to be added to 11 others.
They pulled a cord and the turquoise-and-gold silks of Ahmed Zayat’s racing operation rolled down from the ceiling, lining up perfectly at the end of the row. At the far end were the silks of Sir Barton, who started all this in 1919 and didn’t even know what he was starting. Right next to the colors of American Pharoah were those of Affirmed, who had waited 37 years for company on his left.
It had been only 14 1/2 hours since the current most-famous horse in captivity had raced into history. Yet, the nature of our fast-moving world dictated the immediate line of questioning.
Owner Zayat addressed that, and obviously had given it much thought. He is a businessman. A Triple Crown winner turns this into big business. He has already sold the breeding rights, and those are likely to be worth a solid six figures per mating.
So why would anybody even take a chance on this investment by running American Pharoah again and risking injury? In thoroughbred racing, when a leg fractures, private jets become seats in coach.
“We are committed to running him at least until the end of his 3-year-old campaign,” Zayat said.
“I have talked to my family about this. We are not thinking at all about money, or about value. It is all about the fans. We owe it to the sport to campaign him properly, and I make a pledge to racing that we will.”
That was commendable rhetoric. The reality is that American Pharoah is likely, at best, to be raced twice more before the end of the year. One of those races is obvious — the Oct. 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic in Lexington, Ky.
After that, racing fans will have to revel in reports about the progress of his babies.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who said American Pharoah came out of his mile-and-half race appearing no worse for wear — “He looked like I could run him back in three weeks,” Baffert said — talked about Eastern races such as the Haskell at Monmouth Park and the Jim Dandy at Saratoga. He also teased West Coast interests.
“We have a nice little race at Del Mar,” Baffert said, referring to the Pacific Classic.
The owners of Zenyatta, Ann and Jerry Moss, set the bar high in this regard and deserve the ongoing gratitude they got from the industry when they continued to bring her back to the races. But that’s a bit of apples and oranges. Six-figure stud fees make it so.
Baffert, as is his nature, did his best Sunday morning to enjoy his moment and keep it loose.
He said he was happy because, “Now, Billy Turner has somebody to talk to.”
Turner, 75, is the still-active trainer, who guided Seattle Slew to the 10th Triple Crown in 1973. Before Saturday, Turner was the only living trainer of a Triple Crown winner.
Baffert was making his fourth attempt at securing a Triple Crown and he said that had he not gotten it done this time, he might have reacted badly.
“I might have taken a bat to the Triple Crown Trophy,” he said, clearly kidding. “They could send me a bill.”
He said it was the first time he had been to a big race with a big crowd and not gotten heckled.
“I was disappointed,” he said, “and so was Bode [his 10-year-old son]. He kept asking, where are the hecklers?”
He also said, without indicating how much more he expects American Pharoah to race, that the horse’s long-term future will be rosy.
“He will be out there in the pasture with all those fillies and mares,” Baffert said. “He’ll have a good life.”
American Pharoah, bred in Kentucky, has been shipped back to Baffert’s barn in Louisville at Churchill Downs for the moment, but is likely to move eventually to Baffert’s main stables at Santa Anita, where his trainer can keep a closer watch.
That gives American Pharoah enough California bragging rights to point out that much high-level success in the sport has come from the Golden State in recent years. That would include Zenyatta, California Chrome, Shared Belief and last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Bayern.
Astute reader Mary Jane McKittrick will be given the last word on this matter.
“I’d ask if there is something in the water,” she writes, “but of course, there is no water.”
Follow Bill Dwyre on Twitter @DwyreLATimes