Headed toward the track for the 13th race, Richard Migliore looked down, pointed to the tearful boys at my side and said. “They might see one in their lifetimes. But I don’t know if you and I will.”
My sons Ryan (11) and Jack (8) kept right on sniffling. I thought about it and wondered if the jockey was right. Maybe there would never be another Triple Crown winner. Migliore smiled a weird smile, fixed his feet in the stirrups, tied a knot in the reins and headed toward the track aboard even-money shot Bogota Bill. They won by 2 1/2 lengths.
That was June 5, 2004, and we’d all just seen Smarty Jones lose the Belmont Stakes to Birdstone–coughing up a lead in the final yards and missing a chance at history before the loudest, largest crowd I’ve ever been a part of.
Back at Belmont 11 years later, American Pharoah proved Migliore wrong on both counts–becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner in Thoroughbred racing history, the first since Affirmed in 1978, the first in my boys’ lifetimes and the fourth for Migliore and me.
Ah, the passage of time.
Ryan, 22 and on a post-college-graduation trip to Europe, did not attend the Belmont after making the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He missed horse-racing history, but he saw Michelangelo’s David. Fair trade. Jack, 19, was at Belmont soaking it all in–with Twitter and Snapchat and things no one dreamed of in 1978 or even 2004. Their little brother Nolan, 14, wasn’t there in 2004 and didn’t make the trek this year either after seeing California Chrome lose last year. The kid is young. He’ll get over it. There will be plenty in his lifetime. Probably.
Retired from a career with 4,450 wins, Migliore was at Belmont again. A television analyst for the New York Racing Association, he saw American Pharoah rule, watched jockey Victor Espinoza rejoice, heard the crowd punctuate the moment with a rollicking, roiling celebration that seemed to have no end nor no limit to the volume.
Beside the winner’s circle, the ex-jockey grabbed my shoulders and hollered, “Can you believe it?”
“It happened,” I replied. “We saw another one.”
We talked briefly about the performance, the years, the emotion, the horse, the improbability of it all.
And that, despite all the troubles trying to stay relevant in a sporting world that changes by the minute, is why Thorough-bred racing’s biggest event will continue to captivate. Somebody always wins in the Super Bowl. A driver always drinks the milk after the Indy 500. Augusta always gives out a green jacket. Bearded hockey players hoist the Stanley Cup every year.
To be fair, the Triple Crown is more like the Grand Slam in golf or tennis than a single event but sometimes nobody wins racing’s biggest prize.
Racing should really be OK with that. The sport shouldn’t wring its hands in the face of a drought, shouldn’t worry (one way or the other) about changing the series?–?it’s been changed plenty over the years–shouldn’t begrudge success or malign failure.
Why did American Pharoah succeed where Smarty Jones and so many others–Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Big Brown, I’ll Have Another, California Chrome–came up short?
Ability, luck, timing, constitution and any other variable you care to conjure.
Will there ever be another Triple Crown winner? It’s far easier to say yes after the 2015 Belmont, but we should leave it to the horses and the people responsible to find out.
Breeders strive to create animals capable of the feat–matching pedigree strengths, physical limitations, financial viability, nature and just plain luck. Owners and their consultants try to buy or raise Thor-oughbreds with the right ingredients. Then try to put the horses in the right hands. Trainers balance fitness and frailty, assess talent and temper. Jockeys cajole cadence and tempo and speed, knowing full well there’s only so much sand in the hourglass. Keep drawing the line and it reaches grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, van drivers, pony girls, veterinarians, blacksmiths, gate guys and all the others with a hand along the way.
The rest of us just watch. And enjoy.