Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fairytale Ending: How American Pharoah Made My Horse Racing Life Come Full Circle

All the signs pointed to American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown.
But I was tired of seeing signs. I’d seen signs my entire life. And not once in my thirty-two years had they amounted to anything. In short, I was tired. Tired of getting my hopes up only for them to crash and burn. Tired of putting my life on hold for five weeks because this one horse might be The One. I thought Silver Charm was he. And Real Quiet. And Charismatic. Smarty Jones. Big Brown. California Chrome. On and on. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice… three times… thirteen times? How could I possibly believe this time  should be any different?

Once you stop wanting something, you get it. Trainer Bob Baffert, who guided three horses through their Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories only to fumble the crown and lose it in the Belmont, seemed to be on the same page. He wasn’t even thinking about the Triple Crown this year. A series of life-altering events seemed to have humbled the white-haired rocker of the racing world. He simply wanted to win one more Kentucky Derby. The Crown was recognized for what it was, a nearly impossible task. Something meant for an earlier, worthier time. Not us in these modern times.

Luck, or Fate, began to move late last year. First being American Pharoah, touted then as one of the brightest stars in his 2-year-old class, picked up a foot bruise that kept him from running in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and sidelined him for months. He did not make his first start of 2015 until March in the Rebel Stakes, on a sloppy deluge at Oaklawn Park. None of the other horses could stand the off-track, but Pharoah sailed over it. A sign of things to come.

This year began with a blessing. Last November, America got one of its champions back. That champ being Baffert’s 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Silver Charm. The stallion had spent the better part of his life at stud in Japan. Thanks to an agreement with his owners, the beloved Beverly and recently departed Robert B. Lewis, Silver Charm was to be shipped back to America following the end of his career at stud. So back he came in one piece, happy and healthy, now snowy-white to spend the rest of his days in retirement on a rolling green Thoroughbred retirement farm in Kentucky. Looking a little like the equine counterpart of his trainer, who came to visit him the week before the 2015 Kentucky Derby. So Baffert had his lucky Charm back in the States. (Black cats be damned.)

Bob Baffert with his back-to-back Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

Baffert’s Triple Crown journey and my own will forever be entwined because of Silver Charm. Though I’d watched horse racing since I could remember, Silver Charm was the one that hooked me for life. It was the first time I really got what it meant for a horse to win the Triple Crown. It was, in a way, the beginning of the thirst. I will never forget the slow-mo replay of Free House eyeballing Silver Charm in the stretch of the Preakness. I will never forget how much I wanted to see Bob and Beverly Lewis win the Triple Crown. It would forever harken back to this. Every time a horse won the Derby and Preakness, I would think of that year and the next, when I fell even harder for Real Quiet, another Baffert horse. The one who lost the Crown by a nose. And then in 1999, we went through it all again with Charismatic. It was a lesson in broken hearts. A lesson in the number of ways you could lose the Crown.

Yet, instead of learning these lessons, it fueled the thirst. It was a bastard product of obsession and yearning. I wanted to see the impossible made possible. I wanted to see an immortal. Really, what I wanted was Secretariat.

I wouldn’t have appreciated it. Not then. Maybe that’s why the racing gods made us wait. They wanted us to truly appreciate this gift when it came.

The Wednesday before the 2015 Kentucky Derby, I finally got to meet Silver Charm in person. I fed him carrots and relished every second of his presence. When he was a race horse, I was just a fourteen-year-old girl drooling over every photo of him on the newswire. Now I was in his world, with many thanks to him. That Saturday, I found myself in the center of the media semi-circle as American Pharoah posed for his win photo, roses cascading down his shoulders. Right in front of me, Bob Baffert raised four fingers in honor of his fourth Derby victory. It was too surreal to be true, like a Hollywood movie. He looked straight at my camera. I snapped the picture. My life had come full-circle.

And that was just the beginning.

I watched the clock as I drove down the Interstate, teeth set as I imagined the horses going into the gate at Pimlico. There was no way I would make it home by post time. I didn’t want to know the outcome of the race, so I put my phone on airplane mode so I could avoid spoilers and watch the recording when I got home. But I was still keenly aware of the post time. I could sense the tension of the crowd, what was on the line, the energy and anxiety of my fellow photographers as the clock ticked down the minutes until another question was answered. Three minutes till post time, I saw a bird fly over the Interstate with something in its claws—a hawk with a snake, I assumed. As the bird flew over the car, I stuttered. I let off the gas. A bald eagle. It was a bald eagle carrying a small tree branch. I looked at the clock. The Preakness was about to go off. I’d never seen a bald eagle in the wild. Not in my entire life. But it was unmistakable.

It was too odd. Too obvious. No, surely this wasn’t some sign that American Pharoah was going to win the Preakness. It verged on cartoonish. I had no clue at that moment, the racing gods were baptizing Pharoah with the mother of all downpours. That the track at Old Hilltop was being turned to soup. That everything was being handed to the Derby winner on a silver platter. It was just like the eagle—too dramatic, too Hollywood. All it needed was the soundtrack of a howling church choir.

But it happened anyway. When I finally watched the race, I was sick. Sick because I knew I had little chance of seeing the Belmont Stakes live, let alone in person. There was no getting out of my job of shooting a wedding on June 6th, and this damn horse was going to string along my emotions like all the other ones, only to get my hopes up and let me down. I knew he was going to let me down because everything had been too easy for him. And there were too many signs he was The One.

It was too obvious. So obvious, I didn’t want to believe it.

I had a meltdown the week of the Belmont. Mercury was in retrograde. My nerves were at their grating limit. I was sure I would miss the race, and Pharoah would lose, or worse, I would miss the race, and Pharoah would win. My husband, bless him, helped me rig a plan so the day of coverage wouldn’t be a bust. He came up in my car with a laptop and created a hotspot so we could watch the Belmont coverage in my car after I got off work.

At the wedding, I saw a man dressed in a navy blue suit with a shock of white hair and  sunglasses. Minus a yellow tie, he could’ve been Bob Baffert’s stunt double. I shrugged it off. There were tons of tanned men with blue suits and white hair, after all. What mattered was making it home before the race went off. After the wedding, I practically sprinted to my car. The laptop was already playing Belmont coverage in the seat. My husband floored it. We got home in exactly fifty-five minutes, twenty minutes till post time.

The Goo Goo Dolls were at Belmont, a band that had been at the height of their popularity in the late 90s, when I was in high school and fell so hard for Silver Charm and Real Quiet. When “Slide” played during the coverage, I almost choked. I’ve long believed in the power of music. Something about the melody of “Slide” always soothed me when I was growing up. It felt like a security blanket. Every time I heard it on the radio, I took it as a sign everything was going to be okay. That things would come together. I always thought God spoke through music.

At what point do we start believing in the signs?

I thought about the last album I listened to on the way up to shoot the wedding that day. The last song I heard before I turned off the car. It was “Kashmir” on Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti.”

“Oh let the sun beat down upon my face,
Stars to fill my dream
I am a traveler of both time and space, to
Be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this
World has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and
Wait and all will be revealed.

I watched the 2015 Belmont Stakes the same way I watched the 1997 Belmont Stakes: from the comfort of my living room. What was different this time? Tom Durkin, the official announcer of the Triple Crown, had just retired, replaced by Larry Collmus. I had been to Belmont Park three times. I knew the people on the track, shooting at ground zero. I had taken a picture of the Kentucky Derby winner wearing roses at Churchill Downs. I’d witnessed the last collective crush of a broken dream at Belmont. Also, I’d pet Silver Charm.

And just like that, the spell was broken.

I don’t remember breathing until American Pharoah reached the middle of the final turn. And then I started to hyperventilate. He wasn’t weakening. Victor Espinoza was sitting like a statue in the irons. He wasn’t cocking the whip. They were cruising, with no sign of slowing down. “Oh my God,” I said between frantic gasps. Somehow, I ended up on my knees in the middle of the living room in front of my TV. As Pharoah rounded the turn into the stretch, sobs started to bubble out of my chest. It was happening. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was actually happening right before my eyes.

Frosted gave one last surge at the quarter pole, but Pharoah spurted away from him. Unlike the twelve horses before him who began to falter at this stage. Unlike Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and California Chrome, there was nobody coming to catch him. American Pharoah was home free.
I only saw bits and pieces of him finishing the race. My face dropped into my hands, sobs heaving out of me like I was purging every frustration from the past thirty-seven years. I’d never cried this hard in my life. My dog slinked into the room, surely expecting to find me in my death throes. Larry Collmus’s voice trumpeted above me, “And here it is! The thirty-seven year wait is over! American Pharoah is finally the one!”

When you’re in love, almost every song on the radio is telling the story of your life. I have found the same can be said when your wildest dream has come true.

On my way to pick up a newspaper and champagne, Dave Grohl sang on my car radio, “And I wonder if anything would ever feel this good forever. If anything would ever be this good again.” I didn’t leave my car until the song was over, letting the words soak in. Reveling in the finite afterglow of what we’d witnessed. Knowing that no, nothing would probably ever feel like this again. And why should it? How many times in our lives can we be granted our deepest wish? If it happened more than once, it would never feel so potent, so monumental, even life-changing.

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