American Pharoah’s Unforgettable Finale

Photo by Amber Chalfin | Contributing Photographer

Photo by Amber Chalfin | Contributing Photographer

By the time you read this, the latest addition to the most regal level of Thoroughbred heroes in American racing history will have a few days underneath him in his new life on the farm.

American Pharoah – the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic – will undoubtedly cause a stir for a good while at Ashford Farm near Versailles, the premier Kentucky operation for Ireland’s racing and breeding giant Coolmore. But life will be a good bit quieter on the farm for American Pharoah as the soon-to-be-christened American Horse of the Year – he’s just the 12th American Triple Crown winner and the first to complete the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes sweep since 1978.

Though he did not race outside the United States, his new career in the breeding shed could involve some international travel. Coolmore has a breeding operation in Australia, and the colt could split time between the U.S. and Australian operations in the years ahead, though that has to be announced in any official way.

But wherever he goes, racing fans around the world will be able to look back to any number of brilliant on-track performances by Zayat Stable’s home-bred star. In less than a year and a half of competition, the Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah helped bathe American racing in its brightest spotlight in 40 years.

Photo by Keeneland

Photo by Keeneland

The Southern California-based colt fittingly ended his career at Kentucky’s Keeneland Race Course in the first Breeders’ Cup World Championships to be conducted at the Lexington track. The track is located not far Tom VanMeter’s Stockplace Farm, where the colt that would become American Pharoah was foaled. He spent some time at breeding institutions Vinery and Taylor Made Farm before heading to New York’s Saratoga, where he walked into the sales ring as a yearling, but a top bid of $300,000 was far below owner Ahmed Zayat’s reserve price. So the colt came back home.

Then it was off to Florida’s McKathan Brothers Training Center to prepare for racing, and Zayat made the decision to send American Pharoah to three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert.

All those moves were early steps on the racing journey by American Pharoah that led him to his final, but not defining, moment last Saturday at Keeneland. He was a heavy favorite to defeat seven rivals in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. American Pharoah had established himself as something special at various times during a relatively brief racing career that began with a surprising loss in his racing debut at Del Mar late in the summer of 2014.

But with his sweep of the Triple Crown and his legacy as a great American Thoroughbred already secure, American Pharoah took to the track in the late afternoon at Keeneland in search of a victory that would underscore all that his admirers had believed him to be with a career-ending run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, America’s richest race.

It was never a contest.

American Pharoah jumped from the starting gate under jockey Victor Espinoza and cruised to the front over a “fast” racetrack and never looked back. With the speedy, soon-to-be champion mare Beholder and Smooth Roller, the only other member of the field who appeared to have the ability to press the Kentucky Derby winner on the front end, the race was essentially over.

He turned for home at Keeneland with a 3 ½-length lead, and, with light urging from his rider, he extended his advantage to 6 ½ lengths at the wire.

As he crossed the finish, Breeders’ Cup race caller Larry Collmus exclaimed to the throng at Keeneland and the national television audience on NBC Sports that they were witnessing, “A Triple Crown winner, a Breeders’ Cup winner – a horse of a lifetime!”

He disposed of his seven accomplished rivals by covering the 1 ¼-mile distance in 2:00.07, a record for the Lexington course. His victory margin matched the largest in Classic history, and it was witnessed by 50,155 fans – the largest crowed in Keeneland history.

In describing his Breeders’ Cup Classic performance, the Equibase team that made the Classic chart, the official record of the race, used a term to describe how he won the race that is rarely, if ever, used.

The Pharoah won “gallantly,” the chart-callers recorded.

Indeed.

“I just have never seen anything like him, never trained anything like him,” said Baffert, who narrowly missed in three Triple Crown bids prior to Pharoah’s arrival “I’m just glad that the Pharoah, he goes out the champ that he is … He’s proved enough.”

American Pharoah complete his racing career with nine wins in 11 races with earnings of $8,650,300 – the seventh-highest bankroll for a U.S.-based racehorse.

Keeneland was a wonderful host for American Pharoah’s historic farewell. Saturday’s track record attendance followed an event-record Friday crowd of 44,947 – the largest since the Breeders’ Cup went to its two-day format in 2007. Previous crowds for the Friday Cup sessions at Churchill Downs in 2010 and 2011 stand second and third, respectively, at 41,614 and 40,677.

Along with its success as a host and a near-mythic spot now as the site of American Pharoah’s dazzling finale, there were many other wonderful races and individual performances over the Breeders’ Cup’s two-day stay at Keeneland.

The establishment of strong early favorites for the 2016 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Longines Kentucky Oaks

Unbeaten 2-year-old stars Nyquist and Songbird confirmed they are the early stars of their crop with emphatic wins, respectively, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies.

The fascinating thing about those winners is that both are now regarded as strong contenders for the Derby. Nyquist could bring the team behind 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another back to Churchill Downs after his win over 13 rivals from treacherous post 12 in the Juvenile. The son of strong first-year sire Uncle Mo, who won the Juvenile at Churchill Downs in 2010, is owned by Reddam Racing, trained by Doug O’Neil and was ridden by Mario Gutierrez, the team that earned the Derby roses with I’ll Have Another.

While Nyquist rallied to win by a half-length, the elegant Songbird cruised over nine female rivals by a comfortable four lengths and looked every bit the part of a filly that could be a threat to join Regret (1915), Genuine Risk (1980) and Winning Colors (1988) on the list of fillies that have beaten males at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Songbird is owned by Fox Hill Farm, whose ill-fated filly Eight Belles was the runner-up to Big Brown in the 2008 Run for the Roses. She is trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorder, who has won three runnings of the Kentucky Oaks but has yet to capture the Derby. Mike Smith, who rode 50-1 shot Giacomo to win the 2005 Derby, has the mount on the daughter of Medaglia d’Oro.

Here’s one thing you can likely bet on: Expect both winners of the Breeders’ Cup juvenile races to be part of the field for the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager scheduled for November 26-29.

Tepin leads strong Breeders’ Cup for Team Casse

Trainer Mark Casse, one of Canada’s top trainers and a growing force in the U.S., enjoyed a pair of Breeders’ Cup winners as the 4-year-old filly Tepin defeated males in the $2 million Mile and Catch a Glimpse rallied to win the Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Casse’s wins were well-received at Churchill Downs, where his U.S. stable is based under the guidance of his son, Norman. The elder Casse earned a leading trainer title at Churchill Downs in the 1988 Spring Meet before he moved his operation to Canada.

The win by Tepin was especially noteworthy, as the daughter of Bernstein likely sewed-up an Eclipse Award title as the top American grass filly following victories this year in the Grade II Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile on Kentucky Derby Day, Belmont Park’s Grade I Just a Game and Keeneland’s Grade I First Lady. She also suffered head-bobbing runner-up defeats in the Diana (GI) and Ballston Spa (GII) at Saratoga.

Ken Ramsey’s World, 2015 Version

Kentucky-based breeder Ken Ramsey was smiling again on Breeders’ Cup Day when Stephanie’s Kitten round room along the rail to edge European star and favorite Legatissimo in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Another accomplished product of Ramsey’s star stallion Kitten’s Joy, the Chad Brown-trained Stephanie’s Kitten completed her career with 11 wins in 25 races, two Breeders’ Cup triumphs (she won the Juvenile Fillies Turf at Churchill Downs in 2011) and earnings of $4.29 million.

Two days after her victory, Ramsey sold Stephanie’s Kitten to Japan’s Northern Farm for $2.8 million.

Again, it’s good to be Ken Ramsey.

What if Dirt Mile winner Liam’s Map had run in the Classic?

One of the enduring questions following the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland will never be settled, but will likely generate discussion for a while:

What if Liam’s Map had run in the Classic against American Pharoah instead of competing in the Dirt Mile?

Liam’s Map and champion mare Beholder seemed to be the only Classic contenders with sufficient speed to challenge American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup’s biggest event, but trainer Todd Pletcher elected to run the former in the Dirt Mile, and Beholder was knocked out of the showdown with the Triple Crown winner by a minor bleeding episode days before the race.

The speedy Liam’s Map, an odds-on favorite in the Dirt Mile, encountered significant traffic problems through most of last Friday’s race at Keeneland. But once he wriggled out of his tight spot, he galloped past the talented Lea in the stretch and won easily by 2 ½ lengths under Javier Castellano.

Liam’s Map enjoyed a strong year, and his dazzling early speed would have complicated things for American Pharoah in the Classic, –although it is very likely that the Derby winner was probably just too good for that rival to keep him from the winner’s circle in his final race.

Even though we’ll never know, Liam’s Map heads to a stallion career off a sparkling performance, and he’ll be very popular in the breeding shed next year.

Other impressive winners of Breeders’ Cup races include the Distaff win by the Todd Pletcher-trained Stopchargingmaria and Castellano; the victory by trainer Aidan O’Brien’s Found and jockey Ryan Moore over Epsom Derby and Arc d’Triomphe winner Golden Horn in the Turf; and a dazzling win by the 3-year-old Runhappy in the Sprint that turned unhappy within 24 hours when trainer Maria Borell and owner James McIngvale clashed and the horse was removed from the young trainer’s care.

But one of the most delightful stories of the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland was the victory by 15-1 shot Mongolian Saturday and jockey Florent Geroux in the Turf Sprint. Owned by Mongolian Stable of Ganbaatar Dagvadorj and trained by Enebish Ganbat, the winner was surrounded in the winner’s circle by an entourage dressed in native Mongolian garb.

As often occurs during the celebration of the Breeders’ Cup Championships, the winner’s circle scene made the racing world seem very small.

The two-day event was notable for strong individual performances among human participants. Four trainers – Pletcher, Casse, O’Brien and Brown – won two races apiece, while Geroux, Castellano and European star Moore each won a pair of races.

While I am biased, I continue to believe that near-magical things happen when the Breeders’ Cup comes back to Kentucky, where legendary breeder John Gaines first proposed the event concept in 1982. But the record of eight renewals at Churchill Downs and now the first Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland provides strong support to that enduring belief.

No doubt that this Breeders’ Cup was magical for Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer who saw American Pharoah, his horse of a lifetime, finish a fantastic racing career on a perfect note.

“It’s a horse-racing fairy tale,” Baffert said, “and I just happen to be in it.” VT