The jockey Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. Credit Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Usually I want tension, I want drama in a horse race, especially one as important as the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which attracts the best horses from around the world and carries a hefty purse: $5 million, half of it to the winner.
But as American Pharoah and his seven rivals edged into the starting gate Saturday, the mist settled in the dark skies at Keeneland, and this historic racetrack in the heart of the Bluegrass State became deafeningly quiet. You could hear deep breaths. Nothing much was at stake — except the legacy of a horse and the definition of greatness.
“This was about American Pharoah,” said the colt’s emotional owner, Ahmed Zayat. “We wanted him to go out the right way.”
Sort of silly, right?
Well, not really when you take into account that horse racing is America’s oldest sport and that rare is the man, woman or child who does not become short of breath when watching a racehorse in full flight. In a world filled with smartphones, brain-rattling N.F.L. hits and presidential debates as spectator sport, there is something soothing and old world about watching a horse rocket around an oval ahead of others just because he can.
Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah were led from the paddock to the race track before the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. Credit Michael Adamucci/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
And man, has American Pharoah done that. I do not think I am in the minority when I say horse racing is an easy game to love and too often a hard one to like. Horses are beautiful animals. The humans around them mostly are, but in thoroughbred racing particularly, the miscreants who drug them, mistreat them and trade them like commodities degrade the sport and create distrust.
For the past year, however, American Pharoah made most people forget about the cheaters and the hard hearts, restoring the magic in horse racing. A muscled bay, he swept the Kentucky Derby
, the Preakness Stakes
and the Belmont Stakes
to become the first Triple Crown
winner in 37 years and only the 12th in history.
It was how he did it that was so mind blowing: bounding out of the gate, begging the other horses to chase him, hitting the ground with elegance and efficiency. He was transcendent.
Let’s tip our hat here to American Pharoah’s owners, Zayat and his family, and the trainer Bob Baffert for keeping him on the racetrack when the risk far outweighed the reward.
In June, they could have taken their suitcase full of cash and sent American Pharoah to the breeding shed, giving the flick to horse racing and to sports fans everywhere.
Instead, American Pharoah was shipped in August to New Jersey, where he ran away with the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park. The next stop was Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — the Vatican of horse racing — for the Travers Stakes.
The anticipation of the Big Horse coming and the workout that he turned in on the day before the race, in front of more than 15,000 horse lovers, gave one of the oldest and greatest racetracks in the world one of the most electric weeks in its 150-year-plus history.
He lost — I’ll say valiantly — dispatching an early challenge of Frosted, a fellow 3-year-old, but being unable to hold off another of his generation, Keen Ice, in the final strides.
On Saturday, he was back in Kentucky, less than 30 miles from where he was born in 2012, to prove that he was a horse for the ages.
American Pharoah’s Final Destination: The Breeding Shed
As American Phraroah’s popularity grew, his followers began tracking his flights, referring to the planes as Air Horse One.
Did he need to? No. He had already won eight of his 10 career races and traveled more than 20,000 miles.
Did we want him to? Yes, yes and yes.
This was the ninth racetrack American Pharoah had competed on, and in one, two, three days, the colt will presumably be transported eight or so miles down the road from here to begin his career as a stallion at Ashford Stud. His career was coming full circle, and so, perhaps, was the sport.
I’m here to report that it was the most boring and beautiful race I have ever covered. There was no drama. No tension. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, gunned American Pharoah from the gate and never looked back. They hit the half-mile a length ahead, extended the lead to three and a half at the mile mark and were five ahead as they turned toward home.
“I wasn’t worrying; I was gone,” Espinoza said.
In the racing charts, the performance looks pretty cut and dried. American Pharoah beat the long shot Effinex by six and a half lengths. He earned a $2.75 million first-place check for the Zayats, pushing his bankroll past $8 million. He covered the mile-and-a-quarter route in 2 minutes 0.07 seconds. His backers received $3.40 for a $2 bet.
But for those closest to the horse, it was a crowning moment for an ethereal journey.
“I closed my eyes and didn’t watch for the last eighth of a mile,” Zayat said.
Baffert, a Hall of Famer and the greatest trainer of his generation, knew that American Pharoah had entered rarefied air. In 1973, Baffert had watched the great Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to seal his place as one of the best racehorses in history.
“Just to be close to him,” Baffert said, his voice trailing off.
I understand that. American Pharoah is the best horse I ever saw, and I don’t care if I ever cover another race again.