He is the answer to the question that was endlessly speculated on for nearly four decades, the tangible evidence the Thoroughbred industry had sent a search party out to find, but was losing hope of discovering.
What would the modern racing world look like if it finally got to witness a Triple Crown winner again? A silver-bullet fix to racing’s ailments are thoroughly unreasonable to expect from a single entity. But the query of whether the end of a drought would live up to the collectively hope had been dangling like an albatross over Thoroughbred racing for 37 years.
In sauntered American Pharoah with his bottomless well of ability and indefatigable cruising speed. He made each leg of the American classics look easier than the one before and injected emotion into the most unshakable of hardboots.
In the months since his Belmont Stakes clincher on June 6, the son of Pioneerof the Nile has been a crossover ambassador featured on everything from fashion magazines (Vogue) to publications across the globe. Coincidentally or not, even overall handle on United States races has jumped .86 percent from to 2014 in the year to date comparison to this point.
The racing world has had nearly five months to drink in the champagne bubble of the 12th Triple Crown winner in history. Leading into Saturday’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, the reality of his existence is being overtaken by the actuality that the on-track exploits of the chosen one are coming to an end.
It is both a blessing and a stress for horsemen to know in advance they are leading over a legend for a final time. With the 1 1/4-miles Classic set to be American Pharoah’s final start before retiring to Ashford Stud, his connections have had ample time to try and accept that the horse who multiple lives upside down in a joyous sense only has one more chance to take his greatness to another level.
“We’re taking it day by day,” said owner Ahmed Zayat, who also bred American Pharoah. “He’s a happy horse and I’m focused on keeping him happy until the day comes. This is a big race for him, this is his grand finale and I want him to go out (on top) for Pharoah. He’s changed everybody’s lives, he changed the sport, he’s changed everything. And we just want him to run the race of his life.”
The real way American Pharoah has spoiled everyone is by his continued presence on the racetrack. Where some thought the economics of the current racing landscape would translate into the champion colt being retired shortly after he cooled out following his 5 1/2 length Belmont Stakes triumph, Zayat and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert stuck to their word of showcasing the seven-time Grade I winner.
There was the high of his Grade I Haskell Invitational effort on August 2 where American Pharoah was geared down from midstretch on by jockey Victor Espinoza en route to a 2 1/4 length win. While his upset loss to Keen Ice in the Grade I Travers Stakes on August 29 sparked regret over the decision to wheel back so soon after his Haskell venture, arguably the most painful thing his camp has had to sit with is the notion that their charge is going to end his racing days with a level of upside still within.
“Just watching him work (Monday)…it hits me when I talk about it,” Baffert said. “Just watching him train, watching the way he goes around there, it’s been an honor and a pleasure to train him. He’s just an incredible athlete.
“He’s a horse in the morning who is always brilliant, Pharoah is Pharoah,” added Zayat. “The more (Baffert) is working him, the more he is asking of him the more he is loving it. I’m kind of sad that he’s going to miss that part of it, of him going and doing what he loves which is to compete.”
The immediate impact of American Pharoah becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 was literally right in Zayat’s face post-Belmont.
“I will never forget the day, a grandfather comes to me and he gives me a kiss, and I don’t know this man,” Zayat recalled. “And he looks at me and says, ‘I just want to thank you’. But it’s not about me, it’s about the horse. That’s what this horse has done for the fans.”
On Wednesday morning while watching American Pharoah walk the shedrow instead of training over the rain-drenched main track, Baffert showed the live feed of the Santa Anita Park stall that the best horse he’s ever conditioned occupied until yesterday.
It sits empty now, and Baffert has given orders for it not to be filled yet. After Saturday, tending to the void will be a new mantle for the entire racing community to take up.
“It’s getting a little bit tough,” Baffert said. “I feel like his father and I want to make sure my son goes out there and puts on a good performance.”
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.