The text came from a number with an area code I didn’t immediately recognize. 9-3-7.
“A new triple crown winner today in history. The first one in 37 years. American Pharoah!” it read. “History made! U will always remember this moment in time. Ur grandpa’s watching over u!”
As it turns out, the text was from a lady I know as Nina, a lady who I only know — and I have mentioned her in writing — from our tailgates at the Indy 500. An hour earlier, as American Pharoah was kicking and stretching his lead over the 1.5-mile Belmont race course, I was jumping up and down in front of a few friends who may or may not have known what the big deal was.
The big deal was in Nina’s text. American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t happened since Affirmed bested Alydar by a nose in 1978. As he crossed the line, ending a drought that was 6 years older than I am, I clapped and cried.
The Triple Crown is a big deal. For a boy who grew up in Ocala, Fla., the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World,” it’s a bigger deal.
For a 31-year-old whose grandpa, a Kentucky boy who rode, raced and showed horses for a good chunk of his life, died a few months ago, it’s the greatest sports accomplishment there is.
Bob VanHoose, the aforementioned granddaddy in Nina’s text, didn’t train or race thoroughbreds. Arabians were his passion. When he moved to Florida in the late ’70s and found out none of the race tracks were hosting Arabian races, he worked with other breeders and trainers to get some Arabian events on the calendar at these thoroughbred hotbeds like Gulfstream Park or Tampa Bay Downs.
The man loved horses. He’d have full conversations with them, often in song. When I was old enough to walk and run, he threw me on the back of them. Even though I am allergic to horses, I learned to walk, trot and even canter by the time I was 6.
Bob sold his farm and moved into a faceless Ocala neighborhood in the mid ’90s, but horse plaques, paintings and other knickknacks filled the home from the day he and my grandmother Lorna moved in until the day they moved out — a few weeks before his death in April.
He always watched the Triple Crown races.
That’s about the extent of horse racing anyone in the U.S., myself included, watches anymore. Horse racing may not be a dead sport, but it has gone the way of boxing and the Indy 500, which certainly aren’t as big of deals as they once were.
But we as a people still pay attention when greatness is in grasp. The recent Mayweather-Pacquiao fight was a commercial success, the Indy 500 saw a rise in attendance and TV ratings this year, and American Pharoah has been the top story on every news or sports program I’ve turned on today.
I don’t know what it means for horse racing. I don’t know if American Pharoah will ever race again — if he does, I want to be there.
But I know this: The Triple Crown is the greatest accomplishment in American sport. More than 20,000 thoroughbreds are born every year, but only 20 have a chance to win the Kentucky Derby. From there, the winning 3-year-old has to be more perfect than any other 3-year-old, many of which have fresher legs, over three races that span just five weeks. There is no second chance.
That’s why only 12 horses have won the Triple Crown in 150 years. For a while, I had my doubts on if my generation would ever see a winner.
Now, I’ve seen it. It’s as special as I hoped it would be. I’m still smiling about it.
I bet my grandpa is, too.