All American, one last time

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Two spectacular afternoons of racing were staged in the cradle of the American Thoroughbred world Friday and Saturday, at a Kentucky racetrack that proudly boasts being a place for “racing as it’s meant to be” and once again it was a colt of destiny who shined brightest with a sublime performance for the ages.

American Pharoah was headed for retirement win or lose in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and racing’s first Triple Crown winner put a winning stamp on his career with an amazing performance in North America’s richest race in front of 50,155 fans Saturday at Keeneland Race Course. He not only won the Classic, he demolished it, running alone on the lead the entire 10-furlong trip to win for the seventh time in eight starts this year and in course-record time to boot.

American Pharoah was the centerpiece attraction to this year’s Breeders’ Cup, called a homecoming event as it was being staged in the city where the championship event was conceived and back in the racing-centric state of Kentucky for the first time since 2011. The record Keeneland crowd that turned out, a group that thankfully came more for the actual racing and less for the party, were rewarded with a captivating program capped by the biggest name in the game.

The victory didn’t quite match the magic of his Belmont Stakes, where American Pharoah raced into immortality with a sweep of the Triple Crown, but it was undoubtedly one appreciated by the fans that packed the apron, grandstand, clubhouse and several temporary structures to accommodate the large crowd. The moment was not lost on American Pharoah’s connections, owner Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert and his team and jockey Victor Espinoza.

“He gave everyone what they came to see today,” Baffert said after the Classic. “That’s what horse racing is about. There was some great racing. We saw some really good horses run. That’s the beauty of the Breeders’ Cup. It’s tough to win. You better come with a good horse and you better be ready.

“I’m just so proud of Pharoah, what he did today. … It’s probably the greatest horse I’ll ever be involved with and I’ve had some really nice horses. But I just have never seen anything like him, never trained anything like him. … He is a gift from God.”

The crowd inside the main grounds were ready to see that gift and with less than 45 minutes to post for the Classic it was jammed around the paddock. Walking anywhere in the tight space was out of the question, so many headed to the apron, the boxes and the seats of the grandstand and clubhouse.

What was easy to navigate in the moments after the Europeans swept the first two spots in $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf – the Irish filly Found holding off Arc winner Golden Horn in deep stretch – quickly became much more difficult. By the time the field for the Classic, a group reduced to eight after the scratches of champion mare Beholder and Smooth Roller, came on the track for the post parade there was barely a square foot of space available for any late arrivals on the scene. The stand buzzed with anticipation as the field warmed up, cheers went up when American Pharoah appeared on the television monitors and as the field arrived at the gate just before 6 p.m, the board read 3-5 on racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

The Classic itself wasn’t all that thrilling, at least not compared to the thrilling finishes of the Sprint with Runhappy coming from off the pace to catch Private Zone in deep stretch, Stephanie’s Kitten coming between horses to win the Filly and Mare Turf or even Mongolian Saturday holding off a hard-charging Lady Shipman to win the Turf Sprint.

American Pharoah dictated things from the outset, just like he did winning the Rebel, Preakness, Belmont and Haskell this season. He clicked off early splits of :23.99 and :47.50 as Effinex, Tonalist and Frosted gave chase. The chasers tried to get close entering the far turn before Espinoza gave American Pharoah a little nudge and from there it was over.

The crowd screamed and hollered as American Pharoah stormed into the stretch, past the mile split in 1:35.47. Espinoza stayed busy in the lane, cracking American Pharoah twice right-handed near the eighth pole before showing him the stick several times in the shadow of the wire. He kept his head down until two strides from the wire, then looked up, just as they came into the small area at the finish illuminated by lights and pumped his fist. The job was done, American Pharoah won by 6 ½ lengths, adding $2.75 million to his career bankroll pushed to $8,650,300 with his ninth win from 11 starts.

“Turning for home I was not worried about the track,” Espinoza said. “I was gone. I was trying to open it up as much as I can. And I saw the wire maybe 20 yards, and it was, for me, it was not coming fast enough because I want to cross that wire and get it over with.”

The celebration was going full blast as the rest of the field came back and it reached a crescendo as American Pharoah came to the winner’s circle. Espinoza took his time, letting the fans soak it in, snap photos and relish the moment.

Eduardo Luna led him back past the fans after what will be American Pharoah’s last visit to a winner’s circle, pride written all over his face and in the purpose of his walk. A big group from the Kentucky National Guard followed close behind.

Asked what he thought of the moment and of American Pharoah, as fans yelled themselves hoarse, one of the troops offered a simple and succinct response.

“That’s some horse,” he said, combat boots sinking into the dirt.

American Pharoah certainly was some horse in the Classic and throughout the year. His only blemish an ill-timed attempt at the Travers at Saratoga, where he finished second in a race his connections felt obligated to run in to showcase the colt for the appreciative fans of that racing city.

Back at the test barn, cooling out with the four who followed him home in succession in the Classic – Effinex, Honor Code, Keen Ice and Tonalist – American Pharoah looked as good as ever. He barely took a drink walking the shedrow wearing a purple Breeders’ Cup Classic blanket with his name on one side and “Champion” on the other.

The champion is headed down the road Monday, to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in nearby Versailles, Ky., to begin preparations for what promises to be one of the most anticipated and scrutinized stallion careers in recent memory. A shad more than two months from now he’ll be in the news again, for being named Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male of 2015. Five years later he’ll go into Racing’s Hall of Fame the first time he’s eligible, joining the other 11 Triple Crown winners and scores of the best of the best to race in the U.S.

History will eventually judge where he stacks with the elite of the elite, but a little before 6 p.m. as cloudy skies over Keeneland started to give way to darkness and the fans retreated to their cars, shuttle busses and post-racing tailgate parties, he ranked at the top in the eyes of the fans who saw him and to the people who know him best.

“I think it’s highly inappropriate for me to honestly comment on that,” Zayat said when asked where American Pharoah ranks in the annals of American racing. “Let history place him properly. I’m not a historian; I’m extremely biased.

“American Pharoah has delivered everything we’ve asked for. He has done something that’s not done in 37 years in sheer ease. If this horse had been pushed in either … the Preakness or the Belmont, he would have broken a track record. He is brilliantly fast. But it’s not how fast, it’s how easy for him things are. He’s a smart horse. He’s a brilliant horse. … We are so humbled and privileged again to have owned that horse.”