STUFF OF LEG­ENDS

Amer­i­can Pharoah can add his name (and sto­ries) to a his­toric list

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - BILL DWYRE

EL­MONT, N.Y. — 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 con­nota-

tion, 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 3year-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 11⁄ mile Bel­mont, he hit the 11⁄ mile mark faster than he did the 11⁄ 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. bill.dwyre@la­times.com Twit­ter: @DwyreLATimes

Al Bello Getty Images

AHMED ZAYAT, the owner of Amer­i­can Pharoah, gives the horse a kiss for good luck af­ter a morn­ing work­out Fri­day at Bel­mont Park.

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