I have seen the some of greatest in sports play in person. In 1975 at Royals Stadium, I saw Hank Aaron–the first to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record and still MLB’s all-time RBI leader–drive in a run what ended up being the game winning run for the Milwaukee Brewers. In 1976, I saw Major League Baseball’s first African-American manager–Hall of Famer Frank Robinson– manage and also pinch-hit in the same game for the Cleveland Indians. I saw a Nolan Ryan–MLB’s all-time leader in No-Hitters–throw a 100 mph fastball with the Texas Rangers in his mid-40s, just like I saw him do in his mid-20s with the California Angels.
In the early 1990s, I saw the NHL’s all-time leading scorer–Wayne Gretzky–score a goal on a breakaway with the Los Angeles Kings in St. Louis. In 1972, I saw Johnny Unitas in uniform with the Baltimore Colts. I have seen Joe Montana do his 4th quarter magic in Arrowhead. I have seen Peyton Manning–the NFL’s all-time passing leader–play in person in a playoff game. I have seen Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and the NBA’s all-time scoring leader–Kareem Abdul-Jabbar–play in person at Kemper Arena. I have seen “The Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt Sr race on the high banks at Daytona International Speedway.
I have seen many other great athletes and I have seen enough great things in sports to write a book. But nothing will top being camped out at the finish line at Keeneland this past October with my 13-year old son Anthony and both of us witnessing this historic shot below–American Pharoah ridden by Victor Espinoza–crossing the finish line and becoming the first Grand Slam winner of Thoroughbred Horse Racing.
The moment was almost surreal. Everybody wanted American Pharoah to win. As he came out of the last turn, the feeling wasn’t as much excitement as it was tension and nervous anticipation from the crowd for what was ahead. When American Pharoah started widening his lead, the crowd began to whoop and holler as he got closer and closer to the finish line but you could still sense a bit nervousness that some horse would kick it into high gear a clip him at the wire. Noticeably absent was the applause you would expect for such a moment but everyone was using one hand to film the finish on a camera or their cellphone. When American Pharoah crossed the finish line first, it was a triple crown of feelings: disbelief, relief and joy. It was truly an experience I will never forget and one that I feel extremely grateful to witness firsthand.
Announced this past Monday, American Pharoah is one of three finalists for Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. I have seen a number of AP Male Athlete’s of the Year play in person over my lifetime.
To put everything into perspective, it took Wayne Gretzky less than 10 years to break Gordie Howe’s all-time NHL scoring record. For Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it took about 11 years to surpass Wilt Chamberlain to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It took Hank Aaron about 39 years to surpass Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark. Then it took Barry Bonds 31 years (and presumably steriods) to surpass Aaron’s record. And the NFL passing records have been broken multiple times the past 20 years and are still being written.
American Pharoah is quite simply–the greatest thoroughbred race horse since Secretariat. Secretariat last raced 42 years ago. Secreatariat was the greatest thoroughbred race horse since Man o’War 53 years earlier. That works out to be a truly great horse every 47 1/2 years.
The “Horse of a Lifetime” would not only be my Associated Press ‘Athlete of the Year’ regardless of gender but he would also be my Athlete of the 21st Century thus far. American Pharoah helped put horse racing back into mainstream American Culture.