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American Pharoah and the way we were(n’t)

 American Pharaoh (far right) races to Preakness glory – and into our hearts. Photograph courtesy of the office of the governor of Maryland.

American Pharaoh (far right) races to Preakness glory – and into our hearts. Photograph courtesy of the office of the governor of Maryland.

Not long ago, I interviewed a woman who made our acquaintance difficult before and after. This woman worked with animals for a living and confided during the course of our official conversation that she got along better with them than with people.

Geez, who would’ve thought?, I felt like replying sarcastically.

I still think people who like animals more than people are control freaks setting themselves up for failure since control is basically an illusion. But after seeing the way America has taken to American Pharoah, I think I have a better understanding of this woman.

Saturday, June 13 – a week after the bay colt galloped into history – was “American Pharoah Night” at Churchill Downs in Kentucky, the place where the horse’s Triple Crown dream began. AP was feted by the faithful and racing newcomers alike. Part of that is the human, and particularly American, love of a winner. Part of it has to do with the rarity of a Triple Crown championship. There have only been 12, the last before The Pharoah being my beloved Affirmed, 37 years ago.

But mostly our celebration of four-legged champs has to do with our complex relationship with nature – a universal condition – and our sense of America.

We have long since transcended our animal nature, and the corollary of that is that animals have long since transcended our expectations. When California Chrome lost his bid for the Triple Crown last year, no one blamed CC. No, it was the jockey, Victor Espinoza (the same jockey who rode AP into the record books) or that crybaby owner Steve Coburn.

We assume animals are doing their best – they never choke; they never cheat – because they lack the intellect for complex motivations and thus remain pure.

And that purity speaks to an American quality. Much of what has been written after AP’s triumph was about our youth, our innocence, a time when we shared racing with a parent or older relative before the realization of what has gone into racing (drugs, abuse) – before life and death – happened to us.

American Pharoah represents the way we were.

Or thought we were.

Or still want to be.