On November 2, Team Pharoah gave their boy away.
The great horse stopped twice on his way to the van that would take him to Coolmore-Ashford, where the second chapter of his life begins.
The first time, trainer Bob Baffert could be heard saying, “He doesn’t want to go.”
The second time — which brought tears to my eyes — he looked all around. A long, slow look — at the crimson trees, the roof of the barn, the field stretching beyond. In that moment, I felt American Pharoah saying goodbye to everything that he had ever known.
The Zayat and Baffert families, Jimmy and Dana Barnes, Eduardo Luna, George Alvarez and Smokey the pony now live in another world, a world in which the colt who took them on the ride of their lives is no longer there.
American Pharoah isn’t in the spaces where I knew him either, where I looked for him, where I expect him to be. There is an eerie stillness in my heart. An emptiness where memories glide like chimera.
Today, I want it all back — the joy, the excitement, the anticipation, the thrills.
And the magic.
Most of all, the magic. And I’m not alone on that score.
Here’s one fan, “Lady Ruffian’s” tribute:
Another, “Winged Saviors Horse Rescue” said, “Made solely as a tribute to an amazing horse and athlete.”
The fans: “ordinary folks” — just like me — trying to articulate what it feels like to witness greatness. To see history enfold right before your eyes and know that you were a part of it:
And “Team American Pharoah” — so incredibly gracious and kind, sharing their colt with each one of us, even if we could only come close to him over a screen from afar. Within a year of racing triumphs came stories that buoyed the heart, such as Jill Baffert reaching out to 15 year-old Joshua Griffin, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and wanted more than anything else to meet American Pharoah. (http://www.drf.com/news/bafferts-help-dream-become-reality-one-american-pharoah-fan)
On Sunday, the day after the colt’s BC Classic victory, Joshua’s wish came true. As he reached up to pet the great horse, Pharoah lowered his head, shown here near the end of this clip:
I’m kind of surprised at my own reaction to American Pharoah’s retirement. I’ve witnessed three other Triple Crown winners during my lifetime, beginning with Secretariat. Add to that the retirement of Northern Dancer, Nijinsky, Dance Smartly, A.P. Indy, John Henry, Cigar, Kelso and, more recently, Frankel, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.
In the “old days,” when a horse like Secretariat retired all you got was a 3-minute television clip; then, as a living image, he was gone. There were no video clips or DVD’s, no reports from “down on the farm.” Even the death of the Big Red horse, an icon and a superstar, loved by millions, came out in the newspaper in modest articles, a few lines with a photo.
Today, social media allows a sense of immediate contact. In this “context of immediacy,” I have spent many, many hours with Pharoah and his team, listening intently to what Bob Baffert had to say, watching footage of workouts and fan visits, looking at an encyclopedic assembly of photographs, savouring each and every detail about him, from his love of peeled carrots to his “great mind.”
And that mind should not be underestimated. As Aidan O’Brien sees it, a thoroughbred without “mental strength” is “useless.”
For anyone wondering what a “great mind” aka “mental strength” looks like, it finds superb expression in American Pharoah. Even his by-now legendary calm is associated with superior grey cells.
But where that mental toughness exploded was at work or in a race. Horsemen talk about hoping their young trainees will “get it.” But you can’t train into an individual what an American Pharoah, or Ruffian, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Man O’ War or Frankel have. The ones with mental toughness just know they can do it and they accomplish pretty much anything asked of them, no matter how exacting. They’re born that way.
You saw incredible strength of mind in American Pharoah’s run in the Travers, coming back against Frosted and then battling Keen Ice to the wire. Even an exhausted Pharoah refused to give up the will to win.
Bob Baffert also talked about his colt’s “mechanics.” I can’t say I love the word choice — we still struggle to let go of our enchantment with the metaphor of the machine to describe efficiency and productivity — but I knew what Baffert meant. He meant this:
Balance. The perfect syncopation. The flow. The ease with which he seems to do it. The arch in his neck, giving you the impression he’s got a choreographic routine in mind, or a ballet step.
Pharoah, you made me joyous.
When I watched you come down the final stretch at Keeneland, I wept. It was as though a river of human feeling had erupted. There you were, coming home, running from within and for the sheer love of it. Extreme beauty hurts your eyes, shocks your mind and opens your heart……and so I beheld you. Startling. Greater than beautiful. A song in my heart.
Bittersweet, watching Pharoah and his team over the last day before the colt was moved to Coolmore-Ashford and into retirement. But as I watched him with Ahmed and Justin Zayat, Bob and Jill Baffert, Jimmy Barnes, Eduardo and George, the thought that came to mind was this:
” The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” (Pablo Picasso)
Thank you, Team Pharoah, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing a colt I love so generously. Your spirits are as great as that of your champion.
And thank you, Pharoah, for the magic you made — and then gave away to us all.
Last words go to Jim Gath of Cave Creek, Arizona:
Well, well, my son.
You did it. Yeah, you did.
When you stepped onto the track this afternoon, you not only had the eyes of the world upon you, but you had the hopes & dreams of millions on your back. Sometimes, those hopes & dreams can get a little heavy – too heavy, sometimes. And they can’t be carried a mile-&-a-quarter, especially against competitors that are, quite arguably, some of the finest on earth.
But you knew. You’ve known all along. You haven’t bragged. You haven’t stomped & strutted. You haven’t gotten headstrong. We could see it in your eyes & in your demeanor. You knew that, today, you would not only go out on top – the very top – but you would do it with authority. You would run for the love of motion, for the love of running. For the love of those to whom you mean so much.
You knew that you’d break on top. That you would go to the early lead. That you would toy with the others going down the backside & around the far turn. And you also knew that, coming out of that final turn & heading for home, you would be by yourself. All by yourself. You, running against nothing but history.
You knew that you’d take the others’ hope away.
And, then, like an earth-bound Pegasus, you began to fly. And while the others were straining every muscle in their precious bodies, you simply laughed & stretched your legs & romped your way into that rarified air that is reserved for those who have done what no other ever has.
You looked like you were having the time of your life out there. Hell, son – you didn’t even break a sweat! And seeing you & Victor giggling together, coming back after you’d galloped out – well, son – that was just about the sweetest thing I ever did see.
You are now one of a kind.
The only horse ever to have won the Grand Slam.
I’ll miss seeing you flying down the stretch & across the finish line. I’ll miss seeing you in the Winner’s Circle. I’ll miss seeing the love that surrounds you by everyone you live & work with.
But what I & many others will carry with us is your inspiration.
You’ve inspired us to remain calm & serene. You’ve inspired us to know in our hearts that we can do whatever we put our minds to – if we want it bad enough. You’ve inspired us to see, unequivocally, that actions speak louder than words. That hopes & dreams can be achieved. And you’ve inspired us to see that life is to be embraced & loved & enjoyed.
That’s right, son.
You not only ran like the wind, today.
You carried millions of us along with you.
Yes, you did that.
Yeah, you did.
And, for that, we shall be forever grateful.
(Author Jim Gath is a horseman who works at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary (http://tierramadrehorsesanctuary.org) and whose writing about American Pharoah is as moving as the feeling that drives it.)
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