Pharoah is World’s Best, 2016 Derby Preps Pick Up Pace

American Pharoah has a new career in the breeding shed, but the retired superstar keeps raking in honors for success in his old line of work.

As expected, the Pharoah and his team were the stars of last Saturday’s Eclipse Awards ceremonies. The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Triple Crown winner was crowned as 2015’s Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old, and owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat picked up an Eclipse in each of those categories. Trainer Bob Baffert earned his fourth Eclipse that recognized him as the nation’s top trainer.

Then came Tuesday morning, when American Pharoah was honored by Longines and the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities with recognition of the American champion as the Longines World’s Best Racehorse of 2015.

In only the third year the award has been presented, American Pharoah was rated by international handicappers at 134 pounds, which provided a solid victory margin over European star Golden Horn, winner of the 2015 Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at France’s Longchamp and the Epsom Derby. The latter was assigned 130 pounds.

There was a tie for third between the ill-fated American Shared Belief and France’s Treve. Shared Belief, whose co-owners included trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and sports talk star Jim Rome, died last fall following a bout with colic. He won 10 of 12 races ranging from sprints to 1 ¼ miles and eight stakes events. The shining moment of Shared Belief’s 4-year-old season was a triumph over 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in February’s San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita.

A new award introduced by the two groups honored France’s Arc de Triomphe, won by Golden Horn, as the world’s best race in 2015. Ratings of the top four finishers in the world’s highest-rated races over the past three years served as basis for that honor. Golden Horn won the Arc in 2015, while Treve earned back-to-back victories in 2013 and 2014.

While American Pharoah’s racing legacy might seem to be set after his victory laps at those recent awards ceremonies, the belief here is that the appreciation of his on-track exploits as a 3-year-old will only deepen in the months ahead.

Regular readers here know that I have a high regard for the overall 3-year-old crop that the Triple Crown winner dominated in 2015. I’m very anxious to see the other stars of the crop – relegated to understudy status by the great American Pharoah – perform when they return to racing in 2016.

Keen Ice and Frosted, fourth and seventh respectively, behind the champion in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, will have opportunities to shine in big races without the imposing presence of the retired champion. Both are training in Florida in preparation for their 2016 campaigns.

The best of the understudies could be Dortmund, the Bob Baffert-trained stablemate who was third in the Derby and toiled in the spotlight cast on his barnmate in 2015. He is working steadily at Santa Anita after a pair of wins last fall following a post-Triple Crown break.

International Star, a late scratch from last year’s Derby, returned from the sidelines last week to win a strong allowance race for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trainer Mike Maker. Itsaknockout, eighth in the 2015 Derby, was an impressive winner of a recent allowance race at Gulfstream that was his first race since the first Saturday in May. He is owned by the Starlight Racing partnership that includes Louisvillians Jack Wolf, Ed Glasscock and Clinton Glasscock.

And still to be heard from are the likes of Derby runner-up Firing Line, Florida Derby winner Materiality and Upstart, all of whom have been quiet over much of the fall and winter.

Big runs in important races for older stars by those 4-year-olds that chased American Pharoah throughout 2015 will only enhance the reputation of the now-retired on-track superstar.

While anticipating the exploits of those older stars, the prep races for this year’s “Road to the Kentucky Derby” point system are picking up momentum.

Saturday’s Grade III Lecomte at Fair Grounds and Monday’s Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park flattered the form of young stars that raced in 2015 at Churchill Downs.

The 1-2 finishers at Fair Grounds – as well in the Street Sense at Churchill Downs in November – were Mo Tom and Tom’s Ready, owned by the family of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. The former horse, trained by Tom Amoss, was third behind Airoforce in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club. The latter horse, trained by Dallas Stewart, has now finished behind his stablemate three times, but it’s a hunch here that Tom’s Ready could prove to be the better Derby hope of the two as we move down the road.

The Baffert-trained Mor Spirit, the Kentucky Jockey Club runner-up, won the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity in his next outing.

20160118 Smarty Jones Discreetness (Coady Photography) 2

Discreetness, trained by William “Jinx” Fires and ridden by son-in-law Jon Court, strengthened his Kentucky Derby credentials with a victory in Monday’s Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park. Photo by Coady Photography

The team of veteran trainer William “Jinx” Fires and son-in-law jockey Jon Court won the Smarty Jones with Discreetness, who started twice at Churchill Downs in 2015. The Baffert-trained odds-on favorite Toews On Ice led to the far turn and faded to sixth.

The two races are early 2016 stops on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, but it’s never too early to collect points that could help earn a spot in the starting gate for Kentucky Derby 142 at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 7.

At the conclusion of Monday’s Smarty Jones, only 109 days remained until the 2016 Derby. There’s little wiggle room in the run to the big race, and points – even those earned in mid-January – could be critical when the calendar turns to the first week in May.