Last month I wrote that Triple Crown winner American Pharoah would have just a single opportunity to prove his greatness against older competition in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Boy, did he ever make the most of it.
The highly anticipated match-up between American Pharoah and Beholder didn’t take place after Spendthrift Farm’s two-time champion mare was scratched because of a fever and subsequent bleeding episode two days before the Oct. 31 Classic. The line-up still included a two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup and Belmont Stakes winner (Tonalist), a Metropolitan Mile Handicap and Whitney Stakes winner (Honor Code) and the only horse to beat American Pharoah this year (Keen Ice, the Travers winner).
The race was contested on neutral ground; none of the contenders had ever competed on Keeneland’s dirt track. It would be a fair test.
The second guessers were out in full force, wondering why American Pharoah’s Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, waited so long to ship the horse to Kentucky from his home base at Santa Anita Park in Southern California. They wondered why he didn’t give American Pharoah a prep race after losing the Aug. 29 Travers.
Baffert has proven to be a master at having his horses at their best for the biggest races. Before American Pharoah came along, the former Quarter Horse jockey and trainer had won the first two legs of the American Triple Crown on three occasions, and this year he completed the quest, ending the 37-year drought since Affirmed in 1978. Coming into this year’s two-day championships, Baffert had won 11 Breeders’ Cup races in eight different years.
Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat spoke of American Pharoah in almost reverential terms throughout 2015. “He breathes different air,” Zayat said more than once of this son of Pioneerof the Nile. A rival horseman, watching American Pharoah breeze one summer morning at Del Mar in California, remarked to me, “He has an insanely perfect way of going.” Both while training and racing, American Pharoah’s motion is effortless and fluid.
Baffert didn’t need to leave anything in the tank, for there would be no next race. Win or lose, American Pharoah was going to be retired to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky following the Classic.
With that in mind, Baffert tightened the screws. After a few moderate to slow (for him) workouts, American Pharoah blazed seven furlongs in 1:23 Oct. 14, six furlongs in 1:10.4 on Oct. 20 and four furlongs in :46.3 on Oct. 26. He was sitting on ready.
Thoroughbreds aren’t machines or motorcycles, but the best of them do a pretty good impression.
There was Secretariat, as announcer Chic Anderson said, “moving like a tremendous machine” en route to his 31-length Belmont Stakes route in 1973. “Up on the outside, there goes Affirmed with a rush,” Dave Johnson called in the 1978 Kentucky Derby after jockey Steve Cauthen asked the chestnut colt for his best winding around the far turn.
The great ones have push-button acceleration, different gears, like high-powered sports cars. American Pharoah gives his jockey those kinds of options.
When the field of eight broke from the starting gate in the Classic, regular rider Victor Espinoza asked American Pharoah to outrun his rivals to secure the early lead. He did so easily, cruising the first quarter mile in :23.99. When the pesky longshot, Effinex, came after American Pharoah and ranged up to his outside down the backstretch, Espinoza let out a notch, and his mount responded with a short burst, widening his lead, then falling back into a high cruising speed.
Tonalist and Frosted (the latter pushed American Pharoah into defeat early in the Travers) made their moves on the leader going into the far turn. Once again, Espinoza asked for more, and American Pharoah responded. From that point forward it was a matter of how fast and by how much.
American Pharoah won by 6 ½ lengths, going the 10 furlongs in 2:00.07. The roar from the Keeneland crowd was deafening as American Pharoah cruised into the history books as the first Triple Crown winner to complete what Breeders’ Cup officials are calling the “Grand Slam” with his victory in the Classic.
The win assures a unanimous vote for 2015 Horse of the Year and first-year induction to the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
It’s a place reserved for greatness.