Over the years, Joe Drape has spent a lot of time thinking about horse racing's Triple Crown. After watching horses like Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, and California Chrome take the first two legs, only to come up short at the Belmont, you might think that Drape had been writing last Saturday's post-race story on American Pharoah's historic win in his head for over ten years. But you'd be wrong.
"Being on a tight deadline helps with that because you barrel through all your self-censors to get it to the desk."
"I didn’t write a word until ten minutes or so after American Pharoah crossed the finish line," the New York Times reporter tells Gelf. "There were no pre-planned graphs or template. I knew horse racing before I knew journalism…[I've] been a reporter long enough that I know what works for me: I need to see the race, and feel it, and then let it fly."
And let it fly he did. Like boxing, baseball, and other sports that predate the television era, writing about horse racing can have a timeless effect. Here's a selection of Drape's post-race prose:
There had been only 11 of them in history, and America had elected five presidents, fought three wars and lived through at least three economic downturns since Affirmed had last completed the feat in 1978. In the interim, 12 other very good racehorses had pulled into the starting gate at this grand old racetrack on Long Island with a chance to become the next great horse, only to fall short at the hands of a great rival, as Sunday Silence did to Easy Goer in 1989 or as Real Quiet did in 1998 in a heartbreaking photo finish, or to find the mile-and-a-half distance of the Belmont Stakes just too much, as California Chrome did last year. But as American Pharoah bounded into the stretch amid a deafening roar, the memories of the gritty Affirmed, the speedy Seattle Slew (1977) and that tremendous machine Secretariat (1973) were summoned from backside to grandstand, and rightfully so.
In the following interview, which was conducted over email and edited for clarity, Drape tells Gelf about American Pharoah's future, his impression of the horse's controversial owner, what a Triple Crown victory means for the sport.
Gelf Magazine: The Wall Street Journal put together a video comparing American Pharoah's Belmont run to that of Secretariat. Is that a fair comparison?
Joe Drape: It’s a fun comparison, and I’ve watched it a couple times. You can argue different horses, different eras, but if you watched the video Secretariat would have beaten American Pharoah by daylight. He was the greatest horse ever.
Gelf Magazine: Why aren't horses getting progressively faster the way humans are?
Joe Drape: That's above my pay grade. I have no clue.
Gelf Magazine: Can you place American Pharoah's victory in a historical perspective? Is he an all-time great or did he go against the right set of competition at the right time?
Joe Drape: He is the 12th Triple Crown champion, the first in 37 years. So yes, he has joined a small fraternity of great horses. He has won seven of eight of his races in dominant fashion. He has beaten a good crop of 3-year-olds. He has an opportunity to build on it.
Gelf Magazine: Your excellent post-race piece, as well as Tim Layden's in Sports Illustrated, were almost lyrical at times. Did you know what you wanted to say beforehand, or did it come to you in a rush after the event?
Joe Drape: I didn’t write a word until 10 minutes or so after American Pharoah crossed the finish line. There were no pre-planned graphs or template. I knew horse racing before I knew journalism. I grew up going to the track and have owned horses. I’ve written a couple of books about the sport. I also have been a reporter long enough that I know what works for me: I need to see the race, and feel it, and then let it fly. Being on a tight deadline helps with that because you barrel through all your self-censors to get it to the desk.
A cold Budweiser or two helps as well.
Gelf Magazine: I've posited recently that horse racing and boxing were the most popular sports of the pre-television era because they produce the best writing. Do you think there's any truth to that?
Joe Drape: I haven’t thought of it that way, but you are on to something. But there is more to it. What was true then remains true now: Both sports are populated with outsized characters who love what they do and give you a lot of access.
Gelf Magazine: Speaking of boxing, there's been a noticeable uptick in interest in the sport since its marquee event, Mayweather-Pacquiao. Do you think having a new Triple Crown winner will do the same for horse racing?
Joe Drape: American Pharoah will keep horse racing in the national conversation for as long as he is around. It will bring casual fans to the tracks he ends up running. But the sport's problems are so epicdrugs, abuse, too many racing datesthat American Pharoah, as great he is, can't save the day.
Gelf Magazine: Should jockeys be able to whip their horses? How would horse racing change if they couldn't?
Joe Drape: I'm going to refer you to my colleague Dan Barry's story on whip use.
I think the sport is moving that way and it is probably a good thing.
Gelf Magazine: Were you aware that Ahmed Zayat was trying to quash your profile of him in the New York Times? Were you surprised?
Joe Drape: It was hard not to know. We got a letter a day from his lawyers, and his crisis public relations guy was calling frequently. It happens more than you think at our place so it’s no big deal.
Gelf Magazine: What do you make of Zayat's decision to continue racing American Pharoah?
Joe Drape: It's brave and generous to fans. Far lesser horses have been sent immediately to the breeding shed almost as soon as the Triple Crown was over, including the last three near missesI'll Have Another, Big Brown and Smarty Jones.
Gelf Magazine: What's your overall impression of Zayat? Are you happy for him?
Joe Drape: He gives you plenty to write about.