Confessions of a Triple Crown groupie

     American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza cross the finish line to win the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. American Pharoah is the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza cross the finish line to win the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. American Pharoah is the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    American Pharoah is only the 12th horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes since all three races were first run in 1875. I’m sure my eyes were shining as American Pharoah crossed the finish line. At the same time, I felt an unexpected rush of melancholy.

    I choked up a little watching American Pharoah charge across the finish on Saturday. Finally, another Triple Crown winner after 37 years. Minutes later, my best friend since fourth grade texted me: 

    New Triple Crown winner!!!

    I immediately texted back:

    I KNOW!!!

    She’s probably the only person who knows what this means to me.

    American Pharoah is only the 12th horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes since all three races were first run in 1875. I’m sure my eyes were shining as American Pharoah crossed the finish line. At the same time, I felt an unexpected rush of melancholy. The ending of eras tends to make me sad, but I soon realized the era in question wasn’t the 37-year Triple Crown drought; it was a much earlier one in my life.

    When Seattle Slew and Affirmed won their back-to-back Triple Crowns in 1977 and 1978, I was a horse-crazy tween. I remember carefully cutting out the newspapers stories and photos of their victories and putting them in a scrapbook that has long since disappeared. Joy took the form of weekly riding lessons, and I made persuading my dad to buy me a horse my mission in life.

    Where I grew up in New Jersey wasn’t exactly horse-racing country. But if I excavate my preferred reading at the time, my fascination with racehorses likely started with The Black Stallion series. As I recall, a son of The Black won the Triple Crown, and series author Walter Farley also wrote a book about the legendary Man O’ War. From there, I discovered the magic of other real-life thoroughbred champions. I devoured any book I could find about the Triple Crown winners, and there weren’t many.

    I could recite their names in my sleep: Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew. I knew their records, owners, breeders, jockeys and bloodlines. I bullied my best friend into embracing the subject along with me, at least for a while. Assigned to write about an historical figure in middle school, I chose Secretariat, probably the only person in the class who wrote about a non-human.

    Triple Crown trivia still takes up prime real estate in my brain. The first winner, Sir Barton in 1919, had never won a race before the Kentucky Derby. The 1930 and 1935 winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha, were the only father-son Triple Crown winners on the list. War Admiral, who won in 1937, later lost a two-horse match race to Seabiscuit. Count Fleet was injured while winning the 1943 Belmont Stakes and never raced again. Assault, the 1945 winner, had to overcome a club foot and proved to be sterile.

    The 1948 winner, Citation, was racing’s first equine millionaire. Secretariat broke a 25-year drought when he won the Belmont Stakes in 1973 by a record-smashing 31 lengths. Seattle Slew and Affirmed were the only back-to-back winners in 1977 and 1978. American Pharoah has a stumpy tail because another horse apparently chewed it off, unlike 1941 winner Whirlaway, whose tail swept the ground and was nicknamed “Mr. Longtail.” Even now, I could go on and on given the opportunity.

    However, my ability to spout Triple Crown minutia is more a testament to my very good memory than an enduring passion for horse racing. Like many girls, I moved on from horses as other, more traditional concerns diverted my attention: high school, unrequited crushes, after-school jobs, my parents’ divorce, and college. Later on, loves, losses, illness, full-time jobs, bills, and graduate school took over.

    And yet, over the next decades, I made time to watch the Triple Crown races every year. I tuned in with decreasing enthusiasm because it felt like an obligation, albeit self-imposed. If a horse won the Triple Crown again, I was determined to be a witness. As 13 horses captured the Derby and Preakness only to lose the Belmont in the years after Affirmed, I wondered if I’d see another horse hit the trifecta in my lifetime. Sadly, I sensed something special was slipping away forever.

    So my hopes for American Pharoah weren’t high. As I watched history unfolding and saw proof that amazing accomplishments are still within reach, my surprised delight was tempered by an unsettling feeling of … wistfulness.

    The long-awaited fulfillment of my annual ritual took me back to when my world was small and safe — a time of sleepovers, catching lightning bugs, and splashing in creeks. When staying up late was a treat and going to the beach was an adventure. When I could sit and read for hours, and I secretly aspired to be a jockey.

    Memories of Affirmed winning the Belmont Stakes are hazy at best, but I remember clearly that just one year later my parents’ ugly separation and eventual divorce detonated my world. I never got a horse, and I stopped the riding lessons, because I simply didn’t have the time or money. Turbulent years — decades, to be honest — followed.

    My parents’ split sharply bifurcated my adolescence, leaving my obsession with Triple Crown winners behind the wall around my pre-divorce childhood. The fact that another Triple Crown winner failed to appear for nearly 40 years only helped bury that singular time in my life more deeply.

    As I dutifully entered American Pharoah’s name in the color-coded spreadsheet of Triple Crown race winners that I created years ago, I pondered where that old scrapbook of Affirmed and Seattle Slew stories and photos might be. But I suspect it’s gone for good, lost in the shuffle of several moves.

    Then I smiled as I got another text from my friend:

    I looked up the Triple Crown winners you made me memorize eons ago. I didn’t remember a few but remembered most. It’s exciting to add another one!

    I felt the old enthusiasm slowly start to return. Yes, it really is kind of exciting, isn’t it?

    Samantha Drake is a Philadelphia freelance writer and editor.

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