Last August I was watching the Travers Stakes on NBC. Tom Hammond turned to Jerry Bailey and asked something like: “If American Pharoah wins this race today, does that mean he is the best horse of all time?”
I almost fell out of my chair in a fit of apoplexy. If I had been Jerry Bailey, here is how I would have responded:
“Tom, that is quite probably the stupidest question ever asked on national TV. AP winning this race today proves absolutely zilch. He has been beating these three-year-olds all year long. All he has to do today is beat them again.
“If AP wanted a meaningful race that actually proves something, he should have run against some actual competition in the Whitney or the Pacific Classic. But as it is, AP has nothing to gain by winning this race today and a lot to lose if he should happen to lose it.”
Of course Jerry Bailey did not answer the question thusly. I can’t even remember what he did say, but he treated the question seriously, not with the disdain it so richly deserved.
Then AP proceeded to lose the race at 35 cents on the dollar, by three-quarters of a length to Keen Ice. AP had no excuses that day either, at least with respect to how the race was run, with him on an easy lead through leisurely fractions of :24.28 and :48.30.
AP did redeem himself nine weeks later in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a race which set up absolutely perfect for him after the defections of Liam’s Map and Beholder (both of whom figured to be on or near the lead).
AP ran the race of his life in the BC Classic. He ran his worst race of the year in the Travers. AP was a very good horse when he got things his own way. Under adversity (as in the Travers), he was not nearly as good.
AP was named 2015 Horse of the Year last night, to the surprise of no one. That title was probably inevitable for him (rightly or wrongly) once he won the Triple Crown.
I have yet to see or read any thoughtful appraisal on where exactly AP stands in the pantheon of North America’s greatest racehorses. What has appeared in the media on the subject is essentially drivel of the most fanatically hagiographic nature (a la Tom Hammond).
My intention today is to fill that void. Let us begin by reviewing previous Horses of the Year, dating back to 1936, when championships were first officially conferred.
I present two lists below. The first consists of Horses of the Year I believe were better racehorses than American Pharoah. The second, shorter list consists of Horses of the Year I believe were at least as good as American Pharoah.
Horses of the Year BETTER Than American Pharoah
War Admiral (#13, 1937), Count Fleet (#5, 1943), Citation (#3, 1948), Tom Fool (#11, 1953), Native Dancer (#7, 1954), Bold Ruler (#19, 1957), Kelso (#4, 1960-1964), Buckpasser (#14, 1966), Damascus (#16, 1967), Dr. Fager (#6, 1968), Secretariat (#2, 1972-1973), Forego (#8, 1974-1976), Seattle Slew (#9, 1977), Affirmed (#12, 1978-1979), Spectacular Bid (#10, 1980).
Horses of the Year AT LEAST AS GOOD as American Pharoah
Seabiscuit (#25, 1938), Nashua (#24, 1955), Swaps (#20, 1956), Round Table (#17, 1958), Sunday Silence (#31, 1989), A.P. Indy (1992), Zenyatta (2010).
In parentheses after I each name I listed the year(s) in which they were Horses of the Year. I listed them chronologically in order to avoid the question of ranking. But I also listed their rankings on the Bland-Horse‘s list of the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century.
So these are not MY rankings. The rankings were performed by a panel of “experts” assembled by the Bland-Horse. All in all though I think they did a pretty good job. I found little to quibble with in their rankings.
I listed 15 Horses of the Year I think were better than AP. Bold Ruler was the lowest ranked of them at #19. I listed seven Horses of the Year I think were at least as good as AP. The highest ranked of them was Round Table at #17.
Round Table and Bold Ruler were both foals of 1954 and rivals (along with Gallant Man). Round Table had many admirable qualities: toughness, durability, versatility, and ability to carry weight. But in terms of sheer brilliance, he was no match for Bold Ruler, in my humble opinion.
In listing Bold Ruler among the 15 Horses of the Year I think were better than AP, I was thinking mainly of the 1957 Trenton Handicap. That was the race in which he thoroughly trounced Round Table and Gallant Man and thus earned his Horse of the Year title. If Bold Ruler of the 1957 Trenton Handicap meets AP of the 2015 BC Classic, the former thoroughly trounces the latter, in my humble opinion. That is the main reason I included him on the first list.
As for the second list, Zenyatta has no ranking listed because she did not race in the 20th century. A.P. Indy has no ranking listed because he was not in the top 100. That is a puzzler to me. To my way of thinking A.P. Indy’s Belmont was every bit as good as American Pharoah’s Belmont. Ditto for his BC Classic versus American Pharoah’s BC Classic.
I should emphasize that the lists above pertain to Horses of the Year only. No slight is intended toward horses who raced before 1936 or to some very good horses who were NOT Horses of the Year for various reasons. The #1 horse on the list was of course Man o’ War, and I have no quarrel with his ranking there.
So if I have to put a number on AP, the highest I could possibly rank him is somewhere in the 20s on a list of the top 100 North American racehorses of all time. I think I am bending over backward to rank him that high, to be honest.
“Only my opinion; I could be right or wrong.”
Hagiography is no substitute for history.