An American Classic: Triple Crown champion rolls to Breeders’ Cup triumph

Owner Ahmed Zayat couldn’t bear to watch such a glorious scene come to end.

After three years of seeing the bay colt he bred develop into something that hasn’t been produced in a couple of generations, after witnessing start after start move his charge deeper into the history books and a sport off its jaded foundation, Zayat took one last glance at the 12th Triple Crown winner breaking the will of seven rivals in Saturday’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and said his own silent farewell.

“I really did not watch the final eighth. I closed my eyes,” the founder of Zayat Stables said. “I see him opening. I know it’s done and I got extremely emotional and, you know, that’s all.”

No one connected to champion American Pharoah has wanted to fully accept that Saturday’s 1 1/4-mile  jaunt around Keeneland would be his final career start before heading off to stud. As it were, the last impression the son Pioneerof the Nile made was on par with every other key moment of his life.

He took all the hype, all the expectations, all the hope  placed upon his bay shoulders and answered the bell as if the most arduous of challenges were folly to him.

American Pharoah, the colt who swept the American classics with casual ease to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, made his last competitive outing another one for the ages as he captured the Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths in gate-to-wire fashion before a crowd of 50,155 that attended the second day of the two-day World Championships.

The margin of victory ties Volponi in 2002 for the largest ever in the Classic and the final time of 2:00.07 was a new track record for 1 1/4-miles.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup had been billed as a “homecoming” in that it was being held at Keeneland and in the heart of Central Kentucky for the first time in its 32 year history.

What it really served as was an encore to a coronation. While not every great athlete gets to walk off their playing field of choice with a championship in their grasp, Saturday’s Classic was the latest example of American Pharoah being all he was billed and then some.

“I just have never seen anything like him, never trained anything like him,” his Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. “I’m just glad that the Pharoah, he goes out the champ that he is, and it’s going to be sad to see him go. But I think he’s done enough.  He’s proved enough.”

American Pharoah retires with nine wins from 11 career starts and $8,650,300 in earnings. He could have been done proving anything, however, after he cemented his Triple Crown feat with his 5 1/2 length Belmont Stakes triumph on June 6.

To the delight of a racing nation, the colt kept working his flawless mechanics to the tune of a 2 1/4 length win in the Grade I Haskell Invitational on August 2. Then came the Grade I Travers Stakes where the oft-proclaimed “Graveyard of Champions” that is Saratoga jumped up and bit him  when he ran second to Keen Ice after taking all the heat from Frosted throughout that 10-furlong race.

“I felt bad for the horse, but…to me, racing, we’ve got this big horse, we can’t be afraid to run these horses,” Baffert said. “I’ve had horses that were maybe, on a given day, they were as fast as him, but they had a small window.  And his window has been wide open the whole time.”

Zayat is overly emotional in the best of times and, in the aftermath of the Travers, his initial feelings were telling him to just go ahead and send American Pharoah onto Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, where he will enter stud for 2016.

Baffert countered that he didn’t see a horse whose well had run dry. As usual, American Pharoah backed up his conditioner with another jaw dropping performance.

The complexion of the Classic totally changed when the champion mare Beholder was scratched out of the race due to a fever on Thursday and fellow Grade I winner Smooth Roller scratched Saturday morning due to a tendon issue.

With no one pressing him on the front end, American Pharoah had jockey Victor Espinoza on a joy ride as he broke sharply from post No. 4 and cantered through fractions of 23.99 and 47.50 with eventual runner-up Effinex hanging out a length behind him.

“When it came up with an eight-horse field, when two horses who looked like they had speed…scratched, everybody was riding to be safe,” said Shug McGaughey, trainer of multiple Grade I winner Honor Code, who closed as well as he could to get third.

With his mount’s ears pricked to the sky and the most perfect stride in the game in full flight, Espinoza lets his mount roll for all he was worth towards the wire, giving the crowd and the sport one last look at everything it hoped to see.

“I am so glad that American Pharoah goes out the champion he is,” Baffert said. “We’re all going to miss him.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676.  Blog: Twitter: @horseracinghl.