Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 1, 2015

American Pharoah Exits A Champion

In sports, as fans everywhere know, a final act is no sure thing. Sometimes our heroes leave the stage in a moment of triumph; but often the last chapter of their story tells a tale of disappointment. It is the nature of all our games that no matter how much greatness has gone before, each new test presents its own challenges. But as the final act unfolds there is always a moment, be it glorious or fell, when for we who are watching the outcome becomes clear. Late Saturday afternoon, after two days of racing at the Breeders’ Cup, the annual autumn showcase of American thoroughbreds held this year at venerable old Keeneland, that moment in American Pharoah’s final act came as the field of eight in the mile and a quarter Classic swept around the final turn.

Nearly half a year before that moment arrived the bay colt grabbed the attention of casual fans with a determined run down the stretch to defeat Firing Line and Dortmund in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby. After losing his maiden race as a two-year old, American Pharoah was fitted with earplugs by trainer Bob Baffert, who also removed the blinkers his horse had worn in the losing effort. Pharoah raced just twice more in 2014, but both times won impressive victories in Grade I stakes races. That resume, while thin, was enough to capture two-year old Horse of the Year honors. The award plus two more dominant victories at Oaklawn Park in March and April led handicappers and cognoscenti to make him the favorite for the Derby, but even wizened veterans were impressed by American Pharoah’s determined drive down the stretch at Churchill Downs in the first race of his career in which he was seriously challenged.

When he romped in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later at a Pimlico oval turned into a quagmire by a sudden deluge the boundaries of American Pharoah’s reputation grew exponentially. Now he was the 14th horse with a shot at the Triple Crown since Affirmed last turned the trick in 1978. The longest drought in the history of the sport brought criticism of the racing calendar, modern training methods, the light racing schedules of most thoroughbreds, and the ability of owners and trainers to skip one or both of the first two Triple Crown races in order to enter a fresh horse in grueling mile and a half Belmont Stakes.

Of the eight horses sent to the gate at the track known as Big Sandy on the first Saturday in June, only American Pharoah had run in both the Derby and Preakness. Five of his opponents had skipped the latter, while Tale of Verve ran in just the Preakness and MadefromLucky had passed on both of the first two Triple Crown races in favor of the Peter Pan Stakes. But after moving quickly to the front the overwhelming favorite dismissed all the fresh shooters, opening up more than five lengths of daylight as he stormed down Belmont Park’s long home stretch as announcer Larry Collmus made the call, “And here it is, the 37 year wait is over. American Pharoah is finally the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”

The betting windows at Belmont Park sold just over 94,000 $2 win tickets on American Pharoah that day, and more than 90,000 remain outstanding. They sit now in scrapbooks or hang in frames in the homes of fans who gladly forsook the tiny $3.50 payday for a lasting memento of the day they watched as jockey Victor Espinoza guided a little bay colt into the record books.

The triumph made the horse a celebrity of rock star proportions. He was feted back at Churchill Downs and again at his home course in California. Thoroughbred racing, long reduced to a gray shadow of its old popularity, basked in the attendant glow of American Pharoah’s fame. But surely that would be fleeting, for it was widely assumed that owner Ahmed Zayat would now retire his superstar horse to stud.

Yet behind his flamboyance and bombast, Zayat harbors a great passion for racing and a commitment to it every bit as great as the old line owners who often look askance at the new money that seems to have taken over their sport. He soon announced that as long as the horse was sound and Baffert determined him ready, American Pharaoh would continue to run. So he did at the Haskell in early August, a stakes race that Baffert entries had won seven previous times. As more than 60,000 fans roared their approval, Espinoza guided the favorite to a comfortable lead before easing him down the stretch to victory.

A reluctant Baffert acceded to Zayat’s desire to next run Pharoah at the Travers Stakes less than four weeks later. There at Saratoga, long known as the Graveyard of Champions, American Pharoah tasted defeat for the first time since his first two-year old outing more than one year earlier. In winning eight consecutive times at seven different tracks the Triple Crown champion had logged nearly 19,000 air miles and raced a schedule that few modern thoroughbreds would attempt. Perhaps it was fatigue, or perhaps it was the fact that Frosted pressed American Pharoah from the start. Whatever the reason, fans were reminded that “they all get beat,” as Baffert said after the race.

While his horse made a determined effort even in defeat, Zayat was chastened after the Travers and reportedly gave serious thought to retiring American Pharoah. But he decided that the loss should not be the final memory fans would have of his champion. So he took the gamble that a worse remembrance would be back-to-back defeats and pointed the colt towards the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the richest race run on American soil.

So on Saturday afternoon Espinoza in the brilliant blue and yellow silks of Zayat Stables led Pharoah into the number four post. When the bell rang it took but a half dozen strides for the 3:5 favorite to bound to the front of the pack. Longshot Effinex gave chase, but American Pharoah set a pace of his choosing. The quarter was run in 23 and change, the half in a tad over 47. Those fractions bode ill for the late closers, for they were not the daunting numbers that would indicate Pharoah was going to tire. Yet as they swept into the far turn, Tonalist, Effinex and Frosted were bunched together and for a moment appeared to be closing on the leader.

So the moment arrived. It was the moment when American Pharoah wrote a new chapter in the sport’s history by becoming the first Triple Crown winner to also win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, thus inventing racing’s Grand Slam. At that moment in the great champion’s final race, jockey Espinoza asked him to run; and run he did. Suddenly the close lead turned into a two length margin. They straightened for home and now it was a four length lead, then five, then six and growing. At Keeneland, in the heart of Kentucky horse country and just a few miles from one farm where American Pharoah was born and another where he will now stand at stud, the crowd roared in adulation. In living rooms around the country surely racing fans came to their feet as well. All to salute the glorious final act of a champion; as Collmus again made the call, “As they come to the wire, a Triple Crown winner! A Breeders’ Cup winner! A horse of a lifetime!”

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