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How I talked myself off American Pharoah

By Kellie Reilly

Some horses you just don’t connect with, while others easily number you among their natural constituency. If American Pharoah were in the former camp, my hesitancy to embrace him in the first two classics would be chalked up to an underappreciation of the horse himself.

But that’s not the case with American Pharoah. On the contrary, I’ve had a very lofty regard for him, forged by his performance in last fall’s FrontRunner (G1). Indeed, I voted for him as champion two-year-old male.

So how could I possibly have wandered off course? What labyrinthine process of reasoning led me away from a horse that I normally would have believed in and rooted for wholeheartedly? After all, he’s the son and grandson, respectively, of two old favorites of mine, Pioneerof the Nile and Empire Maker, both of whom I desperately wanted to win the Kentucky Derby (G1) in their years.

I’ll retrace my erroneous steps along the way:

1. The injury that knocked him out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), initially believed to be a deep foot bruise, was later thought possibly to involve a suspensory. Although the champion returned to his usually brilliant self in training early this year, I was already harboring concern about whether he’d make it through the taxing road to the Derby. In fact, when “Pharoah” closed at 10-1 in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, I blurted out that he’d be 10-1 to line up in the gate. Thus began my sense of detachment about his hopes.

2. His devastating romps in the Rebel (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) were joys to behold. The first was confirmation that the champ was indeed back with a bang, and the second proved his tactical versatility. Yet I even found a way to draw concern from these cakewalks. Bob Baffert’s previous Derby winners Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) had both taken the Santa Anita route to Churchill Downs (I’m not counting War Emblem since Baffert didn’t have him until after the 2002 Illinois Derby [G2]). While it made perfect sense for Baffert to divide and conquer with Pharoah and Dortmund (who stayed at Santa Anita), I did have a slight worry about why Pharoah was dispatched to Oaklawn for the two easiest imaginable preps. Was it to keep him from undergoing a test until absolutely necessary? If so, what did that portend?

3. While #1 lost its saliency with the passage of time, and #2 could have been glossed over, this one proved to be my fatal flaw: obsessing about his heavily speed-oriented female line. If he’d been by Empire Maker himself, I might well have thought he’d impart enough stamina to counterbalance the dam’s side. But Pioneerof the Nile already had a little more speed in his female line, making me worry that he might not be as robust a stamina influence as his sire. Pharoah’s dam is a Yankee Gentleman half-sister to graded-winning sprinters Storm Wolf and Misty Rosette. His second dam set a five-furlong course record on the Atlantic City turf, and she was by the obscure Ecliptical, himself a three-quarter brother to the classy sprinter Barrera. His third dam is closely inbred (3x4x4) to speed influence Olympia. Fair play to pedigree expert David Miller, who in his analysis for Brisnet argued that there was enough stoutness to offset all of that. To me, the classic influences were somewhat attenuated, and the speed was magnified.

Even so, looking at all of the videos and photos of Pharoah, I nearly pulled back from the brink. I found myself enchanted and thought, “Behold that marvelous specimen — that’s a classic horse!” But my impenetrable brain wouldn’t believe the evidence of my own eyes.

After the Derby, my knee-jerk reaction was that Pharoah would probably sweep the Triple Crown. Who was left to beat him? Still, I was uninspired by his uncharacteristically workmanlike effort, and wondered whether the added ground did detract from his brilliance. Perhaps he just prevailed over two other non-stayers in Firing Line and Dortmund, in a race dominated by the forwardly placed.

4. But it took less than 24 hours for me to flip-flop: the news about Dortmund’s bout of colic prior to shipping to Churchill suddenly forced a re-think. Was that why he couldn’t confirm form with Firing Line, a horse he’d outdueled twice before? If Dortmund wasn’t quite at his best, how valiant his third-place performance was! And on a strict reading of form through Firing Line, maybe Dortmund wasn’t that far off Pharoah after all. I see-sawed about my Preakness pick until the Thursday blog deadline — go the Captain Obvious route with Pharoah, or clutch at a straw and give the better-priced Dortmund a chance at redemption? I chose the latter, and when the heavens opened up at Pimlico, I felt increasingly uneasy about it. Of course, Pharoah skipped over the slop in a tour de force, setting the stage for a Triple Crown bid in the June 6 Belmont S. (G1).

And all I could think was, “How have I missed the forest for the trees?!” Instead of celebrating a champion, I was left regretting all of my futile concerns. Why didn’t I just allow myself to believe in the horse, who was worthy of such belief?

To be sure, this isn’t the absolute, irrevocable, metaphysical horror of Faust’s seeing the heavenly throne that would have been his, now lost forever.

There’s no eternal ramification to having a wrong opinion about a horse race. Besides, there’s still time for me to make amends in the Belmont.

But will I dare to dream that a Triple Crown is possible, after all of these long years of disappointments? Or will I fasten upon another extraneous circumstance, and allow doubt to creep back in?

Photo of American Pharoah courtesy of Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club.