American Pharoah captures Breeders’ Cup Classic with wire-to-wire victory
LEXINGTON, Ky. – Giving the world one more magical memory, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah provided a storybook ending to the first Breeders’ Cup ever held at pastoral Keeneland Race Course, galloping into his retirement to stud with a 6 ½-length victory over longshot Effinex in Saturday’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“He gave everybody what they came to see today,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “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, it’s tough to win. You better come with a good horse and you better be ready.
“I’m so proud of Pharoah, what he did today. Just watching him turn for home… I’ve never seen anything like him, never trained anything like him. He is a gift from God. I’m just glad the Pharoah goes out the champ that he is. It’s going to be sad to see him go, but I think he’s done enough. He’s proved enough.”
Baffert and owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat and their families watched the race from the walking ring of Keeneland’s paddock, jumping up and down and screaming as American Pharoah cruised away from the competition through the stretch with little urging from jockey Victor Espinoza. Without seemingly exerting himself, he covered 1 ¼ miles in 2:00.07, easily a track record at a little-used distance at Keeneland.
It was the sixth track record in three days on Keeneland’s year-old dirt track that replaced an eight-year experiment with Polytrack.
“What can you say? What a horse,” Zayat said. “The kindest, friendliest, easiest most brilliant horse I’ve ever seen in my life. We owe American Pharoah everything.… This race was only about American Pharoah, we wanted him to go out as a winner, just for the horse. He’s run so hard and brilliantly for a very long taxing time.… He runs with his heart. He’s just a different kind of animal.
“I literally did not watch the final eighth. I closed my eyes, I knew he’d won and I got extremely emotional.”]
American Pharoah, who had never faced older horses, raced unchallenged on the lead, a lethal situation his rivals feared once the champion mare Beholder was scratched on Thursday, leaving no other true speed horse to provide pressure.
The first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years loped through a quarter-mile in 23.99 seconds – fast for most horses trying to go wire to wire at 1 ¼ miles but not for a horse who can reel of 12-second eighth-miles all day. But Pharoah picked up the pace slightly, the second quarter-mile going in 23.51 and the third in 23.71 to have a two-length lead on Effinex.
“I knew it was going to be his last race and I was ready for it,” Espinoza said. “I wanted to let him bounce out of there and (use) his high speed like he’s always done. I don’t want to take any chance. I don’t want to take any one inch out of him in the race to let anybody get close to me.
“On the backside, he kind of slowed down a little bit and then I looked at the track and it was a little bit deep and I decided to move him just like maybe one or two paths out. As soon as I moved from that spot, he accelerated again. I was like wow. I was really excited. Turning for home I was not worried about the track. I was gone. I was trying to open it up as much as I can and I saw the wire maybe 20 yards out. For me, it couldn’t come fast enough to cross that wire and get it over with.”
American Pharoah strode home in quarter-miles of 24.26 and 24.60 as the crowd roared approval. Off at 7-10 odds, much of it no doubt $2 souvenir tickets, he paid $3.40 to win.
The victory came nine weeks after American Pharoah lost the Travers by three-quarters of a length, coming the day after he got overly excited while galloping before a Saratoga crowd estimated at 15,000 just to watch the Triple Crown winner train.
“I’m so proud of the horse, but (also) a sense of relief,” Baffert said. “After that last race, I was really down on myself. I thought he was doing really well, enough to win that race and he was just a little flat. We had that extra time, got him ready. When he’s right, you saw what he can do.”
It was Baffert’s second straight Classic, following the 3-year-old Bayern last year. His 12 Breeders’ Cup victories rank second only to D. Wayne Lukas’ 20.
The $26 million Breeders’ Cup was played out on a cool and overcast day before a crowd of 50,155, a track record. They’ll never forget being there to see the last race for American Pharoah before he heads to a stallion career at the international Coolmore conglomerate’s nearby Ashford Stud, though there could be a possible side trip to Churchill Downs for a finale fan farewell.
American Pharoah, a son of WinStar Farm’s stallion Pioneerof the Nile, concludes his career with nine victories in 11 starts, earning $8,650,300 with the $2.75 million payday. His 3-year-old season never included a home game, the colt flying out to compete at seven different tracks.
The Jimmy Jerkens-trained Effinex, with big-money rider Mike Smith up, went off at 32-1, the second-longest shot in a field reduced to eight with the scratches of Smooth Roller Saturday morning.
Effinex stayed closest to Pharoah throughout, with Tonalist and Frosted next in pursuit before giving way.
“I was so happy with the way he ran,” Smith said. “He just ran brilliant. I knew of course American Pharoah would set the pace, but I thought I got to put myself close enough to give myself a shot. At the three-eighths pole when I saw that I couldn’t match strides I thought, ‘You know what? Don’t panic, don’t go with him, sit there and wait and try to get second’ and we got it.”
Smith, a Hall of Famer who has been around some truly great horses, said of Pharoah, “The real guy showed up today. He’s a machine, just a brilliant horse. No words, at least in my vocabulary, does him justice. I thought I had him for a little bit there, and he just keep hitting gears.”
Honor Code rallied from last,13 lengths back with a half-mile to go, to finish another 4 ½ lengths back in third under Javier Castellano.
“I thought he ran great,” said trainer Shug McGaughey, a Lexington product. “There was no pace over a very fast racetrack and a very good horse won. I wasn’t going to take him out of his running style, and he was the only one who closed… I think everybody was riding to be second, because nobody put any pressure on the winner. The race was over when they were going down the backside.
“… As a trainer, this is the first Triple Crown winner I’ve ever seen, and I think he is a very deserving Triple Crown winner. To see him come back and run the way he did, against this field of horses, my hat is off to him.”
Churchill Downs-based Keen Ice, who in the Travers became the only horse to beat American Pharoah since the Triple Crown winner’s first start, finished 1 ½ lengths behind Honor Code, nosing out Tonalist, Hard Aces and Frosted in the photo for fourth, with Irish invader Gleneagles last in his dirt debut.