Triple Crown Generations

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It’s Oaks morning in England. Here, well, it’s Belmont Eve morning. Strong card at Belmont Park today, unbelievable card Saturday.

Hard to fault American Pharoah, as he sauntered around Thursday morning. We’ve been here before, watching the wheels fall off – Funny Cide was mentally at the end of his tether, Smarty Jones fraying, Big Brown was cracking and I’ll Have Another, well, his tendon told the world how he was doing. This year, from the track apron, American Pharoah looks like he’s handling it, he hasn’t changed, mentally and physically, he looks the same, like milk in a tall glass. That’s what you need to endure the rigors of the Triple Crown. Constitution and ability. A lot of both. People and horses. 

Watching American Pharoah walk to the paddock before the Derby, he was pulling hard, neck bowed, head down, brass shank pulled taut. Before the Preakness, he walked to the paddock without coiling a muscle. On live radio, I couldn’t decide if this was good or bad. Afterward, it was easy to know that it was purely good, like he knew there were two more.

My nephew Jack arriving for the festivities yesterday. Hitched a ride in Keith Cooper’s horse van, watched a few races, stashed his suit case in my car, hopped a taxi and a train to Manhattan and made it back to Garden City within the same calendar square (rest assured, parents, he was home before curfew). Jack’s brother, Ryan, joined me at the Derby circus. They were both at the Preakness. They’re excited, energetic, love the game. The baton has been passed.

I was 7 when I ran up to the barn at Delaware Park to pull three names out of Dad’s hat in the barn pool (5 bucks a horse, Dad spotted me the money). The first one was for me – For The Moment…the second was for my mom – Bob’s Dusty or maybe Affiliate…the third was for my sister – yes, Seattle Slew. I looked at my dad, he knew what I was thinking before I did. “But, Dad…” “No, Sean. That’s your sister’s.” Sheila won the pool. Five weeks later, Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown.

A year later, Affirmed. Three in a decade, easy game. And then, nothing. I haven’t seen one since watching – on a six-channel UHF/VHF television – Affirmed hold off Alydar for the third straight time in 1978. I was rooting for Alydar, the East Coast bias engrained even then. My nephews, they haven’t seen any. The kids who cried when Smarty Jones succumbed are now in college, well, one’s out of college. They join me on the road now, claiming the extra bed in the hotel room, stashing the extra soap, chasing tickets to the parties, pulling on my old sport coats and wishing for a Triple Crown winner.

So, here we are again, on the cusp. Sure, the sport needs one. Will it change anything? No, but at least for a moment, there will be a moment. It’s not the feel-good story of Smarty Jones, Funny Cide or California Chrome. That story simply isn’t there…don’t bother looking. Cool horse. That’s all, cool horse trying to pull off something that hasn’t been done since 1978, when all the world was young.

I asked a friend of mine who’s been down this road before how American Pharoah gets beat and he said, “The game. That’s the only way he’ll get beat. The game.”

I knew what he meant.