After a triumphant stretch like no other in the history of his sport, American Pharoah is the 2015 Stiles on Sports Sportsman of the Year.
The thoroughbred, owned by Ahmed Zayat, trained by the legendary Bob Baffert, and jockeyed by Victor Espinosa, became the first horse to win horse racing’s Triple Crown since 1978, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes over the span of a remarkable 36-day period, all in dominant fashion.
After becoming just the 12th winner in the long history of the Triple Crown, American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown winner to also win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the most lucrative event in horse racing, nearly five months later on Halloween, achieving the newly-coined “Grand Slam.”
The choice of American Pharoah as the year’s best is not an easy one, particularly considering that, although his performance this year was unprecedented, he is a horse. In the end, however, it turns out that this horse’s accomplishments make him the most qualified for an award like this one, even over other candidates who have had tremendous years such as Stephen Curry, Jordan Spieth, and Serena Williams.
Curry was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and helped lead his team, the Golden State Warriors, to their first championship since 1975, before leading them to an NBA record beginning-of-season winning streak of 24 games. Curry is an extremely explosive scorer, and while he’s one of the best shooters the game ever seen, he is also a tremendous all-around player. Curry’s 2015 accomplishments resulted in him being named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, joining Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James as basketball players to win the award.
Basketball has had other superstars, however, and even several players to win both the league’s MVP and the NBA Finals. Curry’s playing style is unique, but his level of success has been achieved in his sport before. American Pharoah is the first horse to ever win all four of thoroughbred racing’s biggest events. Anyone 40 or younger has grown up with the Michael Jordans, Kobe Bryants, and LeBron Jameses of the world, so they’ve seen hoops superstars before, but have never seen a Triple Crown winner.
Jordan Spieth won golf’s first two majors of the year, The Masters and the U.S. Open, before missing a playoff at the third major, The Open Championship, by a single shot, finishing tied for 4th. Spieth then finished second at the PGA Championship, three strokes behind winner Jason Day, and went on to win the FedEx Cup, the PGA Tour’s season-long points championship. Spieth was the first player since 2002 to have a chance at the Grand Slam after two majors, and came within four shots of winning all four majors, something that has never been done since the Masters was established, and has only been done once overall, by Bobby Jones in 1930 (the events considered majors were different at the time).
Spieth’s performance in the majors this year was amazing, and resulted in a “Grand Slam Watch” of sorts throughout much of the summer before the Texan fell just short at St. Andrews. However, Spieth isn’t in unchartered territory, as Tiger Woods won the first two events in 2002, and won all four in a row (but not in a calendar year) from the 2000 U.S. Open through the 2001 Masters. After this generation has seen Tiger’s udder domination of the game, the Summer of Spieth wasn’t overwhelmingly better than other players in other seasons, including Rory McIlroy winning two majors just last year. While what Spieth did in 2015 is comparable to others, including contemporaries, American Pharoah’s season replicated no other, and may never be seen again.
In August, Serena Williams was within two matches of winning the tennis version of the Grand Slam, after previous wins at the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. Williams was upset by Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals, but had still won the previous four majors over two years, known as the “Serena Slam”. At one point this season, the distance between Williams and the 2nd-ranked player in the WTA rankings was the same as the distance between 2nd and 1000th. At a time in her career when most are beginning to fade, Williams thrived through her age 33 season. As a result, Williams was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year, becoming the first solo female athlete to win the award since track star Mary Decker in 1983, and the first tennis player since Arthur Ashe in 1992.
However, Williams season isn’t unique in the history of her sport, and isn’t really even unique within her own career. Williams has won 21 majors in a remarkable career, and has won multiple majors in seven seasons. In 2002, Williams won three majors, and didn’t lose a match in a major all season, failing to win the Grand Slam only due to missing the Australian Open with injury. Williams’ 2015 record of 53-3 is exceptional, and the three losses were the least of her career in a full season, but she had a slightly better winning percentage during a 78-4 season in 2013. These numbers show that Williams whole career has been magnificent, but also show that her 2015 season wasn’t necessarily one-of-a-kind like that of American Pharoah.
One thing that can be said about Curry, Spieth, and Williams that cannot for any non-human athlete is that all three showed the utmost grace in their prodigious successes in 2015. All three, and particularly Curry and Spieth, displayed humility and dignity, even through moments of great personal triumph.
But maybe it can be said that American Pharoah was graceful in running and winning on horse racing’s biggest stages. In winning the Triple Crown, and later the Breeders’ Cup, the horse used his astounding agility, balance, and finesse to establish a beautifully smooth and polished form and elegantly prevail with such ease in a sport that is among the most rhythmic of all, displaying tremendous poise through such palpable pressure. Even as a thoroughbred, American Pharoah exhibited that he was the epitome of gracefulness on his dash to immortality.
In a Sports Illustrated article arguing that American Pharoah was worthy of that publication’s Sportsman of the Year award, jockey Victor Espinosa described the horse’s stride as “beautiful and smooth.” Espinosa said that with most horses he can tell when the horse is going all out, including War Emblem and California Chrome, who both won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before falling short at the Belmont. But with American Pharoah, he would feel as if the horse was on an easy gallop, and he would look back and the colt was several lengths ahead of the competition.
Another reason American Pharoah is deserving of this honor is the athleticism he showed in powerfully dominating in each victory. He entered the Kentucky Derby having won each race except his very first, with each of the victories by three and a quarter-lengths or more, including a margin of eight lengths in the Arkansas Derby, his final start before the Kentucky Derby. At Churchill Downs, American Pharoah faced his toughest test, and beat Firing Line to the finishing line by a single length, as part of a brisk three-way stretch run with third-place finisher Dortmund, who was the second betting favorite behind American Pharoah. At Pimlico in the Preakness, he turned a one-length lead at the top of the stretch into a seven-length victory, exploding through the final furlongs to run away with the race. Against a primarily different field at Elmont Park in the Belmont, the horse similarly erupted in the final portion of the race, turning a one-length lead at the top of the stretch into a five and a half-length victory to complete the Triple Crown, running the second quickest Belmont race of any Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was even more dominant at the Breeders’ Cup, with a more comfortable two- to three-length lead through much of the last half of the race, and another potent stretch run to pull away to a decisive six and a half-length triumph. These runaways were not in any way against weak fields, but against the best thoroughbreds in the world.
American Pharaoh and his accomplishments were cause for great celebration within not just the sport of horse racing, but throughout the entire sports world. While his connections could have undoubtedly decided to retire the horse after winning the Triple Crown without anyone blaming them for it, they decided, as a gift to the sport, to continue to race. American Pharoah won the Haskell Invitational, and finished second at the Travers Stakes, before prevailing in his final start at the Breeders’ Cup. In Espinosa’s article, he described how continuing to run the colt was so beneficial to the sport.
“The decision of owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert to keep American Pharoah running after he won the Triple Crown was a real gift to the sport, and the year’s greatest display of sportsmanship. The colt could have been retired to a very good career as a stallion in June, and there was a large element of risk in bringing him back to the racetrack. Horse racing can be dangerous. But Ahmed and Bob kept him running, and kept him winning. For fans—for everyone, really—to be able to see him run some more races was the gift of a lifetime. Like I said, we may never see another Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah was a star that made our whole sport look good.”
In a fan poll of which finalist should be SI‘s Sportsman of the Year, American Pharoah was the overwhelming favorite, winning 47% of the vote, compared to other nominees which included the Kansas City Royals (29%), Lionel Messi (6%), Stephen Curry (4%), and Jordan Spieth (3%), among others. The amazing widespread popularity of American Pharoah is, in many ways, unmatched in the sports world, and his accomplishments were celebrated nationwide like the successes of few others.
American Pharaoh reached the pinnacle of horse racing by winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, and in accomplishing a feat that has become notoriously hard to achieve (since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 13 horses won the first two legs and failed to win the Belmont), may have become the final horse to win the Triple Crown, or at the very least, the last to do it for a very long time.
Someone wins the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, and collegiate national championships every year. Someone is always awarded the MVP awards in the NFL, MLB, and NBA. Someone always wins major championships in golf and tennis, and although Jordan Spieth and Serena Williams both had a shot to win a Grand Slam in their respective sports, their accomplishments in 2015 weren’t as unique and as special as that of American Pharoah.
The horse of a lifetime is also one of the best athletes of a generation, and as a result, is the sportsman of an exceptional sports year in 2015.