American Pharoah’s place in racing history is assured; that comes with snapping a 37-year drought. But will the Triple Crown be his only legacy?
In Saturday’s $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, American Pharoah will try to add a fourth jewel to his Triple Crown and win what’s being billed as the “Grand Slam.” He’s the only Triple Crown winner to have the opportunity to compete in a Breeders’ Cup, which started in 1984.
American Pharoah’s short reign as the nation’s most famous horse culminates with the Classic, and to some observers the 3-year-old colt still has something to prove during Breeders’ Cup XXXII at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. After Saturday’s race, he’s scheduled to retire to stud at a farm 20 minutes from the track.
The 1 1/4 -mile Classic, North America’s richest race, will be American Pharoah’s only start against older horses. The front-running bay lost in the Travers Stakes on Aug. 29 to closer Keen Ice, who’s also in this race, and another loss would end his lustrous career on a double downbeat.
“I think he’s already earned the title of ‘great’ by winning the Triple Crown, only the 12th horse to ever do it and the first in 37 years,” said Tom Hammond, who will host NBC’s broadcast. “Is he one of the greatest of all time? I think he needs to win the Classic to enter that hallowed ground.”
The weather forecast for Lexington calls for possible afternoon showers. Trackside, there’s a 100 percent chance of tears.
“It will be sad,” trainer Bob Baffert said of his colt’s final race. “It’s going to be emotional. It started hitting me about a month ago, and it hits me when we talk about it. He’s been terrific to me. I’ve never had a horse like him. It’s been an honor and a pleasure to train him.
“It’s important for me to see him go out with a win because I’m his caretaker,” he said. “This one is for Pharoah. This isn’t for Bob Baffert; it’s for the horse.”
Jockey Victor Espinoza and owner Ahmed Zayat have never won the Classic, but Baffert is trying for a Classic repeat. The Hall of Fame trainer won the controversial 2014 Classic with Bayern, who survived a 10-minute stewards inquiry over bumping incidents early in the race. Baffert has won 11 Breeders’ Cup races, and he feels American Pharoah is primed to make it a dozen.
He’s a Triple Crown winner; I think it’s about as much legacy as you can carry. To me, winning the Breeders’ Cup would be like icing.
Trainer Bob Baffert on American Pharoah
“It’s going to be tough,” Baffert said. “But that’s what the Breeders’ Cup is supposed to be.”
Baffert doesn’t want to get caught up debating how his horse will be remembered.
“He’s a Triple Crown winner; I think it’s about as much legacy as you can carry,” he said. “To me, winning the Breeders’ Cup would be like icing. ... The thrill that he gave everybody watching him in those (Triple Crown) races, I think that’s his legacy.”
American Pharoah missed last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile because of a foot bruise; he stepped on a rock four days before the championships. That was one of the few hiccups in his stellar cross-country career; Keeneland will be his eighth racetrack in six states.
“He’s what they used to call in olden days ‘hickory,’ ” Baffert said. “He’s been able to withstand so much, all the racing, the shipping, and he just keeps his head in the feed tub.”
American Pharoah has won eight of 10 starts, including the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes over five weeks in the spring. He has not raced since losing in the Travers two months ago.
That break allowed American Pharoah to grow, Baffert said; he’s put on weight – all muscle – and now tips the scale at 1,195 pounds.
“But he’s lean,” Baffert said, “a lean, mean fighting machine. The time off gave him the chance to get his strength back. He’s at his peak, he’s happy, and he’s doing really well. He’s going to come out of there running.”
Win or lose, the Classic will cap American Pharoah’s record but not rewrite his history, NBC analyst and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said. “No matter how he runs in the Classic ... he will be remembered for the first Triple Crown in 37 years, and rightly so.”
Breeders’ Cup XXXII
- Where: Keeneland Race Course, Lexington, Ky.
- When: Saturday, 9 a.m.; Classic at 2:35 p.m.
- TV: Saturday, 10 a.m., NBCSN, and 1 p.m., Ch. 3
- Watch and Wager: Cal Expo will have live simulcasting. Information: 916-263-3279