Keeneland’s BC Classic Should Rank Among Best

The countdown clock rolls on toward the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Championships celebration at Lexington’s Keeneland Race Course and it is difficult to imagine the mindset of any racing fan that would not be looking forward to the event and, in particular, it’s main event.

The $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, Oct. 31 at Keeneland continues to shape-up as a Halloween treat of historic proportion.

I will not be offender should any reader drop me into the “homer” category, but my personal list of favorite moments in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships since the event’s 1984 debut continues to be topped by three events witnessed under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.  The trio includes:

• Unbeaten Personal Ensign’s victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the 1988 Distaff in the first Breeders’ Cup at the Louisville track,

• Blame’s narrow victory in the 2010 Classic over the great mare Zenyatta, who ended her racing career a photo-finish shy of perfection,

• The 1998 Classic triumph by Awesome Again over ’97 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm and European champion Swain, members of a 10-horse field that I continue to believe was the finest assembled for any race in the history of the Breeders’ Cup Championships.

It will take a lot for this year’s running of the 1 ¼-mile Classic in the first Breeders’ Cup hosted by Keeneland to dislodge any of those three from my “best of” list.  But the potential for a mythic Breeders’ Cup moment exists should all of its expected participants make it into the starting gate shortly before trick-or-treaters hit the streets in Lexington.

The race favorite and main attraction is Zayat Stable’s Kentucky Derby winner and “Horse of the Year” frontrunner American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner to be a part of the proceedings.  The Breeders’ Cup debuted six years after the 1978 Triple Crown won by Affirmed, which was the last sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes prior to this year’s 12th sweep of the series by trainer Bob Baffert’s star.

While American Pharoah comes into the Classic off the second loss of his career, he will be the top-ranked horse in the world when he faces what figures to be close to a full-gate at Keeneland as the light begins to dim on Breeders’ Cup Saturday in Lexington.

He’s a fabulous athlete and one does not have to dig deep to regard his sole loss of the season in Saratoga’s Travers as a remarkable effort.

But the final contest of American Pharoah’s racing could be his most challenging test.  He’ll be facing top older stars for the first time and one doesn’t have to travel too far back in your personal Wayback Machine to recall that his most difficult career performance came at the Kentucky Derby’s 1 ¼ miles, which is also the Classic distance.

While he is atop the Longines World’s Best Racehorse rankings, several likely Classic foes reside close to the Derby winner on the list.  Classic rivals on the list include:

• Trainer Shug McGaughey’s Metropolitan Mile winner Honor Code, locked in a tie for seventh,

• Keen Ice,  the Dale Romans-trained Travers winner who is in that tie for seventh and is the only horse to finish in front of American Pharoah this year,

• European star Gleneagles, a four-time Group I-winning son of top sire Galileo who will attempt to transfer his grass form to dirt and score a Classic win for Irish training legend Aidan O’Brien,

• The brilliant Beholder, the 5-year-old mare who will face males for the first time for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella as she bids to become the first of her gender to win the Classic,

• 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, winner of the recent Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park,

• Pennsylvania Derby winner Frosted, fourth and second to American Pharoah in the Derby and Belmont Stakes, and third in the Travers,

• The intriguing Smooth Roller, who has run only four times but defeated reigning and now-retired 2014 Classic winner Bayern in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita.

There are plenty of stars lining up for spots in races on the Breeders’ Cup undercard, but no other event on the spectacular schedule for the two-day racing spectacle has the potential for greatness packed by the 2015 Classic.

With his status as a Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah is already breathing rare air.  A win in the Classic, and especially a convincing triumph, over what appears to be one of the strongest fields in Breeders’ Cup Classic history would go a long way toward cementing American Pharoah’s legacy as that of a truly great American race horse. VT