A Winner!

When thoroughbred American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes, I whooped so loudly our arthritic Lab struggled to her feet in alarm. The beautiful bay colt with a faint white star on his forehead and fire in his distinctively long-striding feet had done it: after a 37 year drought, Pharoah had become only the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown!

American Pharoah is a striking beast – beautiful certainly, but also gentle, calm and people-loving, which is reportedly rare among top race horses, who are often high strung and aggressive. He is minus most of his tail, which was apparently bitten off by a stable mate, and he has “sensitive” ears, which are stuffed with the horse equivalent of ear plugs for each race. He seems unashamed of his misspelled name, which resulted from an inadvertent error in the submission to The Jockey Club.

Sports columnist Nick Zaccardi wrote that a clear theme linked the horse, trainer and jockey going into the third leg of the Triple Crown’s grueling races: failure. Since the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, 13 horses had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, then had failed to win the Belmont Stakes. Some said it couldn’t be done, since the current norm is to stack the Belmont with fresh horses who haven’t gone through the rigor of two earlier races in five weeks.

Trainer Bob Baffert had failed three times before at the third leg of the Triple Crown, which measures him as the trainer with the most attempts at the prize. After losing both of his parents and suffering a life-threatening heart attack within a short span in recent years, an emotional Baffert seemed to ride on the optimistic, even naïve enthusiasm of his youngest son Bodie, who was his frequent sidekick.

Jockey Victor Espinoza was on board two of Baffert’s failing mounts and a third horse who failed the test just last year. As the oldest jockey to challenge the odds again, Espinoza had weathered a discouraging decade that prompted him to strongly consider retirement. One of 12 children from a family in rural Mexico, Espinoza admitted he was afraid of the small ponies that were on the farm where he was raised. Ironically, he left to drive a bus, which maybe is a good intermediate step to piloting a thundering race horse.

Owner Ahmed Zayat, a flamboyant, somewhat controversial man, initially offered American Pharoah at auction as a yearling. When the bidding failed to reach Zayat’s hoped for price, the owner bought his own colt back for $300,000. Son Justin Zayat, the 24 year old manager of the racing stable, declared, “We couldn’t let Pharoah go for less than we knew he was worth.” The sweet horse with the smooth stride proved well worth the investment. Failure? In the triumvirate of horse races, American Pharoah ran away from the field.

Sure, everyone loves a winner and this is a story full of them. But if you’ll step closer to the rail, you can’t miss the messages that are part of this winner’s circle. Like the flowers that ring the steaming neck of the victorious horse, the morals of the story are as bright as racing silks.

Don’t be bridled by your fears. Stuff your ears against the negative noise. Don’t let failure (or its expectation) break your stride. You’re never too old, too young or too defeated. Saddle up and show up. Keep training. Keep riding. Keep running. Remember who bought you with a price and run for the prize.

As the apostle Paul wrote, “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” Philippians 3: 13-14, NIV.

Marnie C. Ferree