American Pharoah, trained by UA alumnus Bob Baffert, is the first Triple Crown winner in decades, and the University's Race Track Industry Program is enjoying some reflected glory from the horse's historic run.
As he registered some time ago for the inaugural Pan American Conference on thoroughbred breeding and racing, scheduled to coincide in New York with the fabled Belmont Stakes, Doug Reed allowed himself a momentary flight of fancy.
"Wouldn’t it be neat," he thought, "if there was the possibility of a Triple Crown winner?"
Reed, coordinator of the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona, got his wish — and so much more — at Saturday’s 147th running of the Belmont in Elmont, New York.
The Triple Crown, one of the most coveted and elusive prizes in sport, was indeed on the line. And the horse trying to become its first winner in 37 years was American Pharoah, trained by UA alumnus Bob Baffert, whose previous shots at the Crown had come up short ast Belmont in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
On Sunday, Reed still could barely believe what he had witnessed in person: an historic, wire-to-wire victory for the graceful 3-year-old Pharoah and the gregarious 62-year-old Baffert, a distinguished presence in his shock of white hair, red tie and blue suit. Horse and hero were engulfed by a crush of media and well-wishers afterward.
Reed said he never will forget the roar of 90,000 spectators as Pharoah made the final turn on the 1½-mile track, carrying jockey Victor Espinoza and the fervent hopes of racing fans the world over.
"The crowd, I’ve never experienced anything like it," Reed said. "As the horses turned for home, the crowd just exploded. People were crying. Afterward, they just swarmed (Baffert). He was inundated. There were cameras in his face and that of the horse."
Another highlight for Reed was a photo tweeted shortly after the race of Baffert being congratulated by trainer Todd Pletcher, also a UA alumnus and product of the Race Track Industry Program, or RTIP. Pletcher had two horses in the Belmont field, Materiality and Madefromlucky.
The two trainers, among the most successful in horse racing history, were featured in the week leading up to the Belmont by USA Today, in a story that dwelled on the UA’s niche program — a quiet, 40-year success that is known to everyone in the industry but to few outside of it.
Back when the program was just a colt, in the late 1970s, Reed had interest as a graduate student and applied. He even had a $2,000 grant in hand. But he took a job in Maryland instead, only to hire on 20 years — and several career stops — later as the program’s coordinator after a vacancy had materialized.
"This program is known," Reed said. "The UA gets a boatload of exposure from it, in circles that you wouldn’t realize."
To say that Reed and his associate coordinators, Wendy Davis and Liz Bracken, are hyperconnected in the horse racing industry is an understatement. They know everyone. Reed said he ran into at least two dozen alumni of the UA program at Belmont, and there are about 600 alumni internationally.
Bracken, a graduate of the program who came aboard as an administrator two years ago, worked at Belmont Park for 16 years and supervised four interns from the UA when she was with the New York Racing Association.
"As long as you’re willing to put in the effort, you can go anywhere," Bracken said of the program’s students, who number about 40 in a typical year. "People in the industry will call us and ask, 'Do you have somebody?' … We know what our students are going to get here."
Davis, also a program graduate, who has been in an administrative capacity since 1991, said the RTIP began because the industry wanted a better-prepared workforce to run its business side. Led by the efforts of Jack Goodman in raising a hefty endowment and aided by its land-grant status, the UA won out and remains the only four-year university program that focuses specifically on racing. (The University of Louisville has an equine business program.)
As trainers, Baffert and Pletcher "are both at the top, at the highest level together," Davis said. "But we have people on the business side making decisions at that same level."
The UA program’s symposium, held annually in December, is one of the largest racing conferences in North America and is known for its plethora of networking and internship opportunities for students. Reed already has his sights set on Baffert as a special guest for the 2015 edition.
Reed said he wouldn’t be surprised if American Pharoah’s Triple Crown brings even more attention — and students — to the RTIP.
"I always ask students what got them interested in racing," Reed said. "Many say they were enamored by a particular horse. That’s fairly common with students who don’t come from horse racing families.
"American Pharoah is that kind of horse. He’s a big horse. He stands out. He looks the part of a star."