Four reasons why American Pharoah should be SI’s 2015 Sportsman of the Year

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November 12th, 2015

In an era when horse racing is often relegated to the back pages, it’s refreshing to see American Pharoah’s exploits bring our sport back into the limelight – for all of the right reasons. Exhibit A: the Triple Crown champion features among the contenders for Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsman of the Year. Fans can vote through December 12, but the editors will make the final call.

While racing enthusiasts can readily understand the appeal of American Pharoah for this honor, it might take a bit more to persuade other die-hard sports fans. Why should a horse be voted Sportsman of the Year when he’s up against some outstanding humans – such as tennis stars Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, golf’s Jordan Spieth, a different kind of track phenom in Usain Bolt, the NBA’s Steph Curry, and the entire Kansas City Royals baseball team, to name just a few?

Here are my four reasons:

The magnitude of his historic accomplishment in becoming the first U.S. Triple Crown winner in 37 years. By ending the drought dating back to Affirmed in 1978, American Pharoah achieved one of the most difficult feats in sports – a sweep of the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1), and Belmont (G1) that’s been done only 11 times before. Moreover, American Pharoah succeeded where several other greats in the interim have failed. Not even Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, and Sunday Silence could solve that puzzle, and most of our recent standouts were never in a position to try. This isn’t to argue the separate point of how Pharoah stacks up against them; rather, it is simply to recognize the historical record.

Unlike other sports, in which competitors have repeated opportunities in games or tournaments over the years, a horse has only one chance at Triple Crown glory. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont are restricted to three-year-old Thoroughbreds. If you’re injured, sick, or otherwise not ready for prime time, you don’t get a shot. American Pharoah seized his “one moment in time” and made it count for the ages.

American Pharoah demonstrated unusual hardiness and toughness. Standing up to the Triple Crown grind that has chewed up others in the past, he ended the season on a high note. By pummeling older horses in his career finale in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), he proved that he wasn’t just the best of his own age group. And he succeeded where the past two Triple Crown winners had not: Seattle Slew (1977) didn’t have the opportunity to face older horses when missing the second half of his three-year-old season, and Affirmed lost both of his starts versus elders in the fall of 1978. Again, that’s not to argue Pharoah is better, but it does point out that he can claim something they can’t.

Finally, some voters may believe that “Sportsman of the Year” by definition involves the virtues of sportsmanship, and therefore must be reserved to a human being. That’s a fair point, and it’s true that as a horse, American Pharoah isn’t a moral agent who can choose between right and wrong as a human being does. Yet equines have an intelligence of their own, with personalities to match. Within his own species, American Pharoah would qualify as a role model. An exceptionally kind, sweet, and approachable Thoroughbred, he enjoyed posing for photos with his fans. He overcame adversity as well, having suffered an injury in the fall of 2014, and worked his way on the comeback trail to Triple Crown glory. He showed palpable courage when fighting mightily to hold on in his only loss of the year, a gut-wrenching second in the Travers (G1). And to top it all off, American Pharoah didn’t run with mixed motives. He didn’t know anything of his stud deal, or to rack up lucrative endorsements, or to be lionized. He ran his heart out, as fast as jockey Victor Espinoza would let him, for just one reason: the sheer joy of the game. If that’s not a Sportsman, I don’t know what is.

Photo courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photography.