Triple Crown--while great--does not confer greatness on American Pharoah
by JEFF MOSS
There are two Triple Crowns in sports that have been mythologized as much for the impressive achievement they represent as for the California-style drought preceding the most recent noteworthy feats.
Of course, I am talking about the Triple Crown in baseball (winning the batting title while also leading your league in home runs and runs batted in) and the horse racing Triple Crown of sweeping the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.
Before Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 it had been 45 years since Carl Yastrzemski had pulled off that particular trifecta in MLB. And if you are reading this article, I am sure I don’t have to remind you that 37 years went by between the triumphs of Affirmed and American Pharoah.
It would appear that the passage in time between the respective Triple Crowns has led to a total abandonment of critical thinking when attempting to contextualize those accomplishments. I feel like I am in a unique position to comment on the current dominant opinion that American Pharoah MUST be the best three-year-old to run in the United States since Affirmed solely because of the Triple Crown achievement -- an opinion held by one of this website’s bloggers, Ed DeRosa.
While I have been wagering on horses since I was six years old (RIP, Detroit Race Course), I am known mostly for running a website called the DetroitSportsRag.com. One can imagine that, as someone who writes for a Motor City blog, I am a huge Miguel Cabrera fan. I not only love Miggy but also believe he is the greatest Tigers hitter of all-time—a list that includes Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, and Al Kaline.
That resume didn’t stop me from using my cognitive sense in 2012 when Cabrera won the AL Triple Crown. Heck, not only wasn’t I overly impressed that Cabrera pulled off the feat, I didn’t even think that he was the best player in the American League that season!!! That designation should have gone to Mike Trout, who was screwed out of the AL MVP that year.
By any overall analytical measure you could ascertain, Trout was better than Cabrera in 2012. Unfortunately for the Angels outfielder, he could not fight the narrative that anyone who won the Triple Crown had to be superior, no matter what other more important statistics were telling you.
It didn’t matter that Trout had a much higher Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Miggy. It didn’t matter that Trout had a better wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) than Cabrera. It didn’t matter that the main reason Cabrera won the Triple Crown was due to the fact it was a down year for highest batting average and total dingers in the AL. It didn’t matter that Miggy had at least two, maybe three better offensive seasons in his career than the year he won the TC.
Nope, none of that counted. The voters just looked at the Triple Crown and said Miggy was better than Trout. He wasn’t.
Now, as you can imagine, this was not exactly an extremely popular positon to take on a Motown website. I probably would have pissed off fewer people if I had driven around town in a Toyota with a Chicago Blackhawks license plate holder and a Green Bay Packers car flag.
But I am a numbers guy and I believe in advanced metrics so I stood my ground. My fandom didn’t sway my beliefs. And I believe the same argument is unfolding now three years later regarding Pharoah’s overall place in Thoroughbred horse racing history.
I have been engaging DeRosa in this debate on Twitter for the last couple of days, but the impetus for this article didn’t harden until the following Tweet from Ed on Wednesday morning:
“My take: Any horse who won the Triple Crown had a better 3yo season than a horse who tried to win it but didn't.”
To me, this is an incredibly short-sighted opinion and one that doesn’t take into consideration speed figures, competition or a myriad of other factors that should be contemplated when comparing Pharaoh to the likes of Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Point Given, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and others.
But this is the same nonsense we heard back in 2012 when the dominant meme was that the Triple Crown is sacrosanct and beyond reproach.
My question is this, though: if you are going to state unequivocally that Pharoah is superior to the Triple Crown warriors from the spring of 1989, should they be eliminated from consideration for best three-year-olds since Affirmed just because they were unlucky to both be born in 1986?
(I mean, Ed contradicted himself by Tweeting that in a mythical race of Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Point Given and American Pharoah he’d be all in with the Charlie Whittingham trainee.)
Are we supposed to throw out the entire body of work of Point Given just because he had a bad day on the first Saturday of May, even though there should be no debate that he was a faster horse than the Zayat family’s prized possession while also beating faster competition than what Pharoah has to date?
And while Smarty Jones and Big Brown might have lesser cases than the others, it is my opinion that on THEIR best days they were also superior to Pharoah, and I use American Pharoah’s subpar speed ratings in both the Derby and Preakness to support this assertion.
But to a majority of horse racing journalists and fans, nothing in the world matters except sweeping the Classic series. Of course, if Stewart Elliot didn’t give Smarty a lousy ride in the 2004 Belmont, the gap between TC winners would have only been 11 years and I doubt anyone would be deifying Pharoah in this particular fashion.
Look, I am not saying that winning a Triple Crown in horse-racing isn’t an INSANE accomplishment. It is. And nothing that happened in upstate New York last weekend diminishes the feat whatsoever. Any talk that Beholder or Honor Code can usurp Horse of the Year title in the next few months is poppycock. And I am only using the word “poppycock” because I am told this is a family website.
But, if you believe in speed ratings, performance figures, and the like then Pharoah basically ran the same race he has been running since March. The only thing that changed is someone was slightly better in the Travers.
And if winning the Triple Crown is the end-all, be-all we are led to believe, why doesn’t ANYONE in the world mention Real Quiet in the discussion of greatest modern day three-year-olds?
Not one Thoroughbred before Pharoah’s Belmont thrashing had come closer to history than Real Quiet’s nose defeat at the hoofs of Victory Gallop in 1998. But when anyone raises this topic, he is never considered.
Even Bob Baffert, when asked the other day to discuss his best three-year-olds didn’t bring up the name Real Quiet. He mentioned Silver Charm and Point Given but not the horse who missed out on the TC by mere centimeters.
So are you trying to tell me that if Real Quiet’s nose had resembled either Howard Stern’s or Pinocchio’s in the midst of a big whopper of a lie that we would have exalted him like we are Pharoah today?
I don’t think so.
Is American Pharoah the best three-year-old since Spectacular Bid? I don’t believe so. I am not even convinced he is the best three-year-old currently in training. That honor could go to Euro Golden Horn who accomplished the impressive double of taking down the Epsom Derby and the Eclipse Stakes and has already defeated older horses.
I wouldn’t have written that a week ago, but now the standouts on both sides of the Atlantic have a second-place loss to a longshot victor on their 2015 resume.
I can understand why Ed is so enamored with the Triple Crown. It’s a title that hadn’t been handed out in a VERY, VERY LONG TIME. And, DeRosa being a Cleveland native who supports the Mistake on the Lake’s sports franchises, it is understandable. The poor guy has never witnessed one of his professional teams hoist a championship trophy.
And maybe American Pharoah will line up in the gate on October 31 at Keeneland and defeat a field that includes Beholder, Honor Code, Tonalist, and Gleneagles in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and then we can revisit this topic.
But, right now, he is not the best horse of the last four decades.
Triple Crown or not.