Voss: American Pharoah’s Hall Of Fame Induction Marks A Complicated Moment For Racing

To say the combined 2020/2021 Hall of Fame induction ceremony was surreal seems an understatement. The public gallery in the Fasig-Tipton pavilion was packed with people well before the 10:30 a.m. start time, as might be expected in a year that saw the first admission of a Triple Crown winner since 1981 when Seattle Slew was enshrined. Still spinning from the cancellation of last year’s ceremony (and much else) due to COVID-19, people were “just happy to be here this year.”

It’s appropriate that the ceremony is held with a day of racing at Saratoga as its backdrop – the pinnacle of achievement, recognized in one of the toughest places to win a horse race. It’s supposed to be a pure moment each year to honor the very best accomplishments in our sport. This year, it was a cloudy one.

Indeed, the stretch run of the 2015 Belmont, which so many of us have seen over and over again, was played a few more times. The crowd stirred a little. Everyone remembered how they felt in the moments when Larry Collmus called those immortal words into his microphone: American Pharoah is finally the one.

According to the eligibility rules for the Hall of Fame, this is the first year American Phaorah was on the ballot to enter the Hall, and he got in on the first try, as he should have. But in the six years since his retirement, the men united by his accomplishments are no longer thought of as solely the engineers of racing’s favorite history-making moment.

Bob Baffert saddled another Triple Crown winner, who was later discovered to have tested positive for scopolamine and had that test result buried by California regulators while he was on his way to winning the roses. He has had a slew of other therapeutic drug positives among his other graded stakes winners, followed by an apology, followed by the biggest scandal of all – a betamethasone overage in this year’s Kentucky Derby winner.

The legal fallout from the Medina Spirit saga is still unrolling and probably will continue for many years to come. It’s the public trust in racing that will suffer for far longer. In a sport that already had two black eyes from the 2018-19 California breakdowns and the 2020 federal indictments, Baffert has knocked us right in the kisser. Everywhere I’ve gone this year, non-horse people have asked me (with absolutely no prompting from me) about ‘why the white-haired trainer doped that horse’ or why he ‘thinks he can get away with it’ as Baffert and his lawyer went on a public relations blitz, making clear they would fight a disqualification. People who hadn’t watched a race in years remember this one, and probably the last time you could say that about a horse race, it was the 2015 Belmont.

Ahmed and Justin Zayat look on as a highlight reel of American Pharoah’s career plays on the monitors at this year’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Photo by Joe Nevills

Ahmed Zayat ran through the money American Pharoah won him with dizzying speed and took out $23 million in loans barely a year after the horse crossed the wire in the Belmont. He had run out of money to prop up his racing operation, telling MGG Investments he was already in debt and wanted to buy more horses. At the start of last year, MGG took Zayat to civil court, claiming he had not only failed to pay back that loan, but also that he sold breeding rights to his Triple Crown winner in violation of contract. Zayat has since declared bankruptcy, with a bunch of trainers and other horse industry professionals listed as his creditors – hard-working people who endured early mornings and bad weather trying to take care of his animals, people who now may not see a dime for it.

There’s a tendency in horse racing – among fans and journalists alike – to cringe away from discomfort. It’s human. When a person in racing does something we don’t like, I hear people say they prefer to focus on the horse and the horse’s accomplishments, laying to one side the problematic connections they’d rather not think about.

It is true, after all, that the horse can’t choose his or her connections, and I, like many people in this sport, am in this because of my fascination with the horse more so than the people.

But I’ll just say the thing I’m not supposed to say: it wasn’t American Pharoah accepting a bronze plaque acknowledging his immortality on Friday morning. It was Ahmed Zayat.

Just as horses have no say in what their owners or trainers do, they also have no use for the accolades we do or don’t give them. Becoming an Eclipse Award winner or a Hall of Famer will not change a horse’s day. While I believe horses are highly intelligent, I also think they live in the moment; they are not worried about human constructs, for better or for worse, but the people around them will add to their own net worth with such honors.

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In American Pharoah’s case, we were fairly warned. Zayat was sued in 2009 by Fifth Third Bank for allegedly defaulting on $34 million in loans, and then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for his Zayat Stables. Baffert’s history of therapeutic violations prior to American Pharoah has been well-documented – so well-documented, in fact, that an animal rights activist who protested Friday’s induction ceremony carried what I assume was supposed to be a poppyseed bagel. So was the 2013 investigation into the number of sudden deaths suffered by his horses in California, which were never completely explained but eventually blamed on thyroid medication Baffert was administering to horses who did not have a medical need for it.

The voting body (of which I am a member) could hardly have refused American Pharoah’s enshrinement based on all this. His accomplishments were historic. But it’s time to stop pretending that 2015 was a fairy tale, and that this moment isn’t a complicated one.

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