The rose and the whip: American Pharoah and the ambivalence to horse racing

Secretariat. Photograph by Dell Hancock.

Secretariat. Photograph by Dell Hancock.

With American Pharoah taking the Kentucky Derby all the way from the 16th  post, the dream of the Triple Crown is renewed and so is my uneasiness with my enthusiasm.

On the one hand, it was a terrific race with Pharoah – the misspelling is not a mistake – coming up from behind down the stretch to overtake Firing Line and Dortmund. There is something visceral about the power of these animals. I was jumping up and down in the living room, willing Pharoah to go.

On the other hand, jockey Victor Espinoza applied the whip many times in the stretch at the Run for the Roses to the point where you couldn’t help but think, Poor thing, A.P.’s already giving it his all. (The Pharoah is said to love people and have an eager-to-please temperament.)

Such sentiments don’t sit well with those who say Thoroughbreds are born to run. Yes – in a field. Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed – the last three Triple Crown winners (1973, ’77 and ’78) – weren’t born racing around the 1 and ½ mile oval at Belmont Park (though they were all stabled there.) They were trained to do so. And for that you use the whip.

It is a terrible paradox in human nature, isn’t it, that we take pleasure in the pain of others – or at least see it as collateral damage, a necessary means to a desired end. It’s a subject I intend to explore in the third planned book in my series “The Games Men Play,” “Criterion,” told in part from the viewpoint of the titular racehorse trying to win the Triple Crown. Cri is a superhorse – smart, disciplined, supremely talented, good-natured – but he fears the lash and the mercurial owner who’s only too quick to apply it. And Cri’s heard the tales of members of his own family who were broken or destroyed, because they got on the wrong side of their owners.

Fear can be a motivator. Would that we didn’t use it.