By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
Horse racing, Joe Drape notes, is America’s oldest sport. It arrived in the New World centuries before the creation of baseball, basketball, or football, and it has become a part of American culture, if only for a few weeks every year. From the running of the Kentucky Derby in early May to the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes, American sports fans watch to see if a single horse can capture racing’s storied Triple Crown. Following the 1978 Triple Crown won by Affirmed, no horse was able to do it until 2015, when American Pharoah claimed his place in history.
Drape’s American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise offers readers a behind-the-scenes recounting of the titular colt’s career. Along the way, we learn a great deal about the modern racing industry–from the major players to the shady dealings to the negative impact the sport has had on thoroughbreds. The champion horse and his trainer are celebrated, of course, but racing itself is the real centerpiece.
While American Pharoah lacks the novelistic grace of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Drape approaches his subject as both a journalist and a fan, a combination which works best when he recounts the action from the star horse’s races. Though the outcome of a given contest is rarely in doubt, these passages have a surprising tension. Drape also conveys the ample charisma of American Pharoah, giving readers a strong rooting interest in the colt. We want him to win because we like him.
Horse racing is a controversial sport. Animal rights activists denounce it as cruel. It has long associations with gambling and organized crime. Moreover, it’s a sport that only the wealthy can participate in, with unproven ponies selling for millions of dollars. Still, racing has been with us from the early days of the British colonial era, and it continues to fascinate, if only for five weeks a year. American Pharoah will satisfy the casual fan who wants to understand why.