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Where does American Pharoah rank among the all-time greats?

Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrated aboard American Pharoah after winning the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrated aboard American Pharoah after winning the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. AP

The Herald-Leader asked several Thoroughbred industry insiders and Kentucky sports personalities their opinions on Sportsman of the Year American Pharoah and where the Triple Crown winner ranks among the all-time great Thoroughbred horses. Here are some of their answers.

Tom Hammond (NBC Sports): “I’ve said all along that he deserves the term ‘great’ just by being only the 12th Triple Crown winner in history, the first in 37 years. And going into the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I said that if he wins, beats older horses, then he can be listed among racing’s all-time greats. So that’s where I put him, among racing’s all-time greats.

“The thing I think that really is distinctive about him is that he seems to just glide over the track. He doesn’t pound it and make it hard on himself like a lot of horses do. He just glides over the track and it’s so beautiful to see him in motion. It’s poetic almost to see him running. I think that’s something that we’ll remember about him for a long time. That and the fact that he’s so people-friendly, such a ham around people.”

Kenny Rice (NBC Sports, HDNet): “I think everybody gets real carried away and gets excited. I know we’re in the age of ‘let’s have a list’ and I think that’s fun but it’s kind of unfair. But I think he’s among the all-time greats. I’ll put him in the top 10 of all time and let everybody else figure out after Secretariat what order they want to put everyone else in.

“He beat everybody he was supposed to. To see how he won the Preakness and the Belmont, then put the exclamation point on in the Breeders’ Cup. Those are dominant performances. So everybody that was supposed to be good he was far better than. I think that’s the only fair criteria for any horse, how much better are they than the competition in a given year, and he really had no peers.

“When you look back at that photo of the Preakness I think that’s one of the most telling photos I’ve ever seen in horse racing. (Jockey Victor) Espinoza looked like he’d been out for a day at the park and so did the horse, and everybody else is covered in mud. That deluge came down just a few minutes before the race and dramatically changed the surface, and that had no effect on him. That’s what makes a great horse and that’s why I’d put him in the top 10.”

Ed Bowen (president of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation, Thoroughbred historian and author): “If you think of tiers as being 10 horses, I think he’d probably be in the second tier. To say ‘all-time,’ that involves eras when horses were routinely challenged more than they are today.

“I’m old enough to remember when it was just routine that your top 3-year-olds would go on and race at 4 and they were challenged additionally by being in handicaps, where they would carry more weight than other horses. Today’s horses very rarely get the opportunity to show that. I don’t say that critically because that’s just the way it is. The breeding potential of American Pharoah would not have been enhanced by his racing another year. It would only be from the academic standpoint of judging a racing career today versus a racing career of yesteryear. Having said that, it seems counterintuitive to say a horse needs to race on at 4 to prove himself when both Man o’ War and Secretariat did not race at 4. So it’s a very complicated matter. A lot of subjectives.”

Paul Rogers (WHAS-AM 840, Louisville men’s basketball and football play-by-play announcer): “He’s the best I’ve seen since Secretariat. It’s hard for me to rank the ones I never actually saw, but in my lifetime I would put him right up with Secretariat.

“I don’t ever remember seeing a horse of any kind, much less one this athletic, who was also this docile. He was like a pet dog and that just drew people to him even more.

“I think, frankly, Bob (Baffert) deserves a lot of credit for this horse being perceived as so great because he made him so accessible for people to see his greatness and his uniqueness.”

Tom Leach (WLAP-AM 630, Kentucky men’s basketball and football play-by-play announcer): “He’s easily got to be in the top five with what he accomplished. I’m always partial to Secretariat so it would be hard for anyone to pass him, other than maybe Man o’ War, and I don’t really have a frame of reference for rating him other than just what you read. Those two are probably where you start with comparisons. American Pharoah’s not quite to that level in my mind but with what he accomplished, he’s got to be high up on the list.

“He had this ability to take the fight to his rivals so effectively and the speed to make his own luck in a lot of ways.

“Once he won the Preakness the way he did and then the way the Belmont shaped up it was hard to see him getting beaten. With the speed that he had and the way it stacked up on paper it was hard to see him losing.”

Mike Battaglia (NBC Sports, Thoroughbred oddsmaker and handicapper): “I’d say he’s in the top 10. You’d have to put him up there close. He dominated the 3-year-olds up until the Travers and had that misstep, but there’s a lot of horses that don’t take to that Saratoga track. Even Secretariat got beat a couple of times, so I think you give him a pass for that. But when he came back in the Breeders’ Cup and ran that kind of race it was just awesome.

“Secretariat never did it, but Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid and Seattle Slew they all ran after 3. Secretariat is still at the top of my list even though he didn’t run after 3 but to me, you’ve got to keep those horses that ran at 4 up there above (American Pharoah). I think he would have been a great 4-year-old, I would have loved to see him run but those horses went on after that and proved it.

“I’d have to put Secretariat, Affirmed, Seattle Slew, probably horses like Spectacular Bid in front of him. You’d have to go back to Smarty Jones before I’d say there’s been a 3-year-old as good as him. I definitely don’t think California Chrome was. You go back and look at some other ones and I’d definitely say this is the best 3-year-old I’ve seen since the ’70s.”

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