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American Pharoah’s A Superhorse, But He’s No Secretariat

After American Pharoah (sic) won this year’s Preakness Stakes, I warned you all to be skeptical of him in the Belmont Stakes.

Oops.

In my defense, I was technically being skeptical of any Triple Crown hopeful, not this horse in particular — and I (mostly) stick by that. But American Pharoah appears to be a legitimate superhorse.

Indeed, he may be one of the most super superhorses in history (at least among American 3-year-olds). Like Secretariat, American Pharoah has broken a multi-decade Triple Crown slump. Like Secretariat, American Pharoah won all three races without much difficulty. American Pharoah won the 1.5 mile (12 furlong) Belmont Stakes in a time unmatched by any other Triple Crown winner (save Secretariat) in history. American Pharoah also led wire-to-wire, and won by an impressive five and a half lengths.

But as great a run as American Pharoah had, it still didn’t really approach Secretariat’s. Picture how far ahead of the field American Pharoah was at the end of the Belmont. Now double it (multiply by 2.4 to be exact). That’s about how far American Pharoah would have been lagging behind Secretariat (13 ¼ lengths). In a Belmont field featuring the 11 Triple Crown winners running their Belmont-winning times, Secretariat would have led the other horses by the following distances:1

morris-datalab-pharoah-1-clarification

Still, this is amazing company, and American Pharoah’s triumph is only the fourth Triple Crown since 1948.

All that said, American Pharoah’s win didn’t clear up whether a horse that wins at 9.5 and 10 furlongs (the distances of the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby, respectively) is likely to be able to win at 12 furlongs. The types of horses that win the Belmont may be more naturally calibrated to the longer distance.

There’s some evidence of specialization in the race’s winning times. Since the Belmont Stakes moved to 12 furlongs for good in 1926, American Pharoah’s time is only seventh-best, with four of the six better times coming during the most recent drought:

morris-datalab-pharoahTC-2

The most interesting thing about this chart is what we do not see: There hasn’t been a recent bunch of Belmont superhorses. In fact, Belmont times have been on the rise for the past 20-plus years, and their five-year average in 2014 (pre-American Pharoah) was the highest it has been since the 1930s.

While this makes a win by American Pharoah a little less spectacular than if he had to fend off a troupe of ever-improving distance-running specialists, it makes his time – the best by any horse in over a decade (since Point Given in 2001) – even more impressive, relative to the recent trend.

CLARIFICATION (June 7, 3:37 p.m.): An earlier version of this article included a chart that suggested it showed all Triple Crown winners’ Belmont finishes. It showed all Triple Crown winners’ Belmont finishers since the Belmont race was lengthened to 12 furlongs in 1926.

Footnotes

  1. I converted the difference between each horse’s finishing time to lengths using the typical rate of five lengths per second.

Benjamin Morris researches and writes about sports and other topics for FiveThirtyEight.

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