American Pharoah makes for a great year in horse racing
BY DICK POWELL
2015 is over and what a year for horse racing it has been. Last year, when CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit) was beaten in the Belmont Stakes (G1), it looked like we might never have another Triple Crown winner. The task seemed insurmountable.
But along came AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) and the 37 years since AFFIRMED (Exclusive Native) won the Triple Crown became irrelevant. Not only did he win the Triple Crown, he crushed it. And as great as American Pharoah was, his trainer, Bob Baffert, was even better.
In the 37 years since Affirmed in 1978, no trainer in America had more experience coming close in the Triple Crown. Whether it was winning the first two legs, like he did with SILVER CHARM (Silver Buck) in 1997, REAL QUIET (Quiet American) in 1998 and OUR EMBLEM (War Emblem) in 2002, or the last two legs like he did in 2001 with POINT GIVEN (Thunder Gulch), nobody was better prepared to navigate American Pharoah through this year’s Triple Crown trail.
After losing his career debut at Del Mar, Baffert thought so highly of American Pharoah that he brought him back in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) where he won by almost five lengths. He came back in the FrontRunner Stakes (G1) going two turns at Santa Anita and won easily in a fast time.
But with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) three days away, Baffert had to scratch American Pharoah due to some sort of undisclosed hoof injury. Still, the colt was voted champion 2YO male of 2014 and it was on to the Triple Crown.
Off for almost six months with time running out, American Pharoah was on a critical path to the Kentucky Derby (G1). Even the slightest delay would force him to skip the race and everything had to go perfectly.
Baffert determined that he would keep DORTMUND (Big Brown) in California and point for the Santa Anita Derby (G1) so American Pharoah shipped to Oaklawn Park for the Rebel Stakes (G2). Heavy rain hit Hot Springs and the main track came up sloppy for a horse that had never raced on anything like it. The fear was what if he disliked the track and then, how would he come out of the race?
American Pharoah answered both questions with authority when he won by 6 ½ lengths and came out of it fine. Four weeks later, he returned for the Arkansas Derby (G1), rolling to an eight-length win. With only three weeks to go to the Run for the Roses, everything continued to be on schedule and he showed up at Churchill Downs a fit horse that was only getting better.
From post 15 and three weeks’ rest, if they were ever going to beat American Pharoah, it was going to be the first Saturday in May. Victor Espinoza kept him extremely wide while trying to get him to relax and nearing the top of the stretch, he began to scrub on American Pharoah. It looked like he might be in trouble but while racing out in the middle of the track, he got by a stubborn FIRING LINE (Line of David) to win the Derby by a hard-earned length. Considering how much ground he lost, it was a huge effort.
Next up was the Preakness Stakes (G1) and when a torrential thunderstorm hit Pimlico 10 minutes before the race, the track came up a sea of slop. No worries since American Pharoah excelled at Oaklawn Park over a similar track. Espinoza was taking no chances that day and gunned him to the front.
Once he cleared the field, the race was over and American Pharoah coasted to a seven-length victory. Because he glides over the track so athletically, he does not run down on his heels like some horses so it was onto the Belmont Park and a spot in history.
The morning of the Belmont saw it rain for about an hour which was perfect for him. There was no chance of a deep, tiring sandy track now and despite all the heartbreak and disappointment we have seen in the past 37 years, I was positive American Pharoah would win easy.
Employing similar tactics that he used in the Preakness, Espinoza sent him to the front and dared the field to catch him. Nearing the furlong marker, when it looked like American Pharoah would not get caught, Belmont erupted into bedlam. Many sports media members, who cover major events outside of horse racing, said that it was the loudest crowd noise they ever heard. And they were right.
I have been lucky to be in attendance for the last four Belmont Stakes when the Triple Crown was clinched and this year’s version was special. It was similar to SECRETARIAT (Bold Ruler) in 1973 that saw the crowd go crazy even though there was no real drama to who was going to win. American Pharoah achieved what was beginning to look to be impossible and he had Bob Baffert to thank.
After a brief rest, the next logical step was the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park since the Zayat family is from New Jersey. American Pharoah absolutely dominated as Espinoza shut him down a 100 yards from the wire and cruised home a 2 1/4-length winner over the rallying KEEN ICE (Curlin).
At this point, things went bad. Baffert wanted no part of Saratoga and the Travers Stakes (G1). His record, with the exception of POINT GIVEN in the Travers, was not good and he was well aware of the “Graveyard of Champions” reputation that the Spa has earned in its glorious history. Plus, he knew that if he was going to do well in the Travers, it always helps to have a race over the track which was not possible after going to the Haskell.
So American Pharoah went back to California to train for what many of us thought would be his next race – the Pennsylvania Derby (G2) at Parx Racing. Instead, the Zayats were pushing hard for Saratoga. When American Pharoah had a brilliant seven-furlong workout at Del Mar the week before, it was announced that he would coming to the Travers after all.
He shipped in on Wednesday, did very little on Thursday and would gallop on Friday to get ready for the next day’s race. In a morning that I will never forget, around 20,000 people showed up to watch American Pharoah gallop and ringed the historic oval for what should have been light exercise.
In the first misstep of the campaign, Baffert did not outfit his exercise rider, George Alvarez, with a walkie-talkie and the Triple Crown winner probably galloped too strong on the eve of a 10-furlong race two days after shipping cross country.
Unlike his last two starts, Victor Espinoza was not able to make a commanding lead as Jose Lezcano, filling in for a recently-injured Joel Rosario, gunned FROSTED (Tapit) and pressured American Pharoah every step of the way.
There was never a moment’s rest and despite looking like he would be passed turning for home, American Pharoah dug in and repelled his challenge. Just when it looked like he would hang on, and the decibel level reached epic proportions, here came Keen Ice to spoil the party. The crowd went to screaming their lungs out to an eerie silence as Keen Ice went by in the final yards.
Ahmad Zayat’s immediate reaction was to talk about retirement but Baffert was strangely calm. The trip to Saratoga was never his idea and the folly of it showed up in the final 100 yards. Health permitting, Baffert said they would go back to California and train up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). In other words, Zayat would have nothing to say about prep races or anything else.
American Pharoah recovered from the grind and was back on the game plan with his workouts getting better and better. His last three at Santa Anita before shipping to Keeneland for the Classic were the old American Pharoah and it was all systems go.
Once in Kentucky, things could not have worked out any better. Super mare BEHOLDER (Henny Hughes) came down with a shipping fever and had to be withdrawn. Woodward Stakes (G1) winner LIAM’S MAP (Unbridled’s Song) was entered in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) and the emerging SMOOTH ROLLER (Hard Spun) was scratched the morning of the Classic with a tendon injury.
The Classic was now down to American Pharoah as the lone speed horse and Victor Espinoza took advantage, gunning him to the lead before getting his mount to relax. American Pharoah kicked home to win by 6 ½ lengths in 2:00 and earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 113. Not much drama but a fitting way to end his career and Baffert was able to draw a big sigh of relief. It finally all worked out and was well deserved for Baffert, who was more than up to the task.
Photo courtesy of Jamie Newell/Horsephotos.com