LEXINGTON, Ky. – The story ends here, barely an hour’s drive from where it began on the first Saturday in May. It ends beneath a flat, grey autumn sky, with a cold wind rustling impatiently from the west and across the Keeneland Race Course infield, tossing leaves into the air and harkening the close of another year. It ends with American Pharoah sheathed in a purple blanket, guided by his groom on one last walk back to the barn after one last victory on one last racetrack, bobbing his shimmering, dark brown head to the sustained and thankful applause of fans who had never seen his kind and may never see it again. It ended as it should, with dominance affirming all that came before it.
Nearly five months had passed since American Pharoah released his sport from the shackles of enduring disappointment. Thirty-six springs had come and thirty-six springs had passed without racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, and while many very fine horses won many fine races in those years, that drought became the one statistic that most forcefully defined racing for the mainstream sports public. It finally ended on the first Saturday in June, when Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes, unleashing an emotional celebration that rippled across the ancient game, giving it fresh life for generations new and old.
But it was not the end. Pharoah had been sold to an Irish stud farm long before the Triple Crown campaign commenced, but that stallion career would not begin until 2016. His owner, Amhed Zayat, and trainer Bob Baffert, generously vowed to race Pharoah through the rest of the year, sharing him with an adoring public. There was little to gain and much to lose. The horse could climb no higher, but he could fail, or worse. He was a symphony without a coda, a book without a final chapter. His legacy was safe, but his farewell was unfinished. An easy win at the Haskell in New Jersey in early August was followed by a loss in the Travers at Saratoga at the end of that month, a defeat that left Zayat contemplating retirement for the horse.
So it was late Saturday afternoon at Keeneland that Pharoah won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, the culmination of a year-ending two-day carnival of hyper-competitive and lucrative races that holds a an important place in the sport but is largely overlooked by the Triple Crown-obsessed American public. He faced seven opponents in a field thinned by the disappointing defection of five-year old mare Beholder, but that also included four accomplished “older” horses (defined in racing as older than three years, the age of Triple Crown competitors) and the best three-year-olds still in training. It was a victory that punctuated a brilliant season and secured a place in history. “When he stepped up and took on everybody that showed up today, that put him in the record books forever,” said 80-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “He’s really extraordinary. I’d say he ranks with [1973 Triple Crown winner] Secretariat and [1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner] Spectacular Bid.”
Lukas paused. “That’s pretty good company.”
The road to Saturday’s win began shortly after Pharoah’s loss in the Travers, a quirky race in which three-year-old Frosted unexpectedly engaged Pharoah in a speed duel, sacrificing his own chances of winning and setting the race up for Keen Ice to run down Pharoah in the final strides. The outcome gutted Zayat, but Baffert persevered. “He ran his heart out that day,” said Baffert during Breeders’ Cup week. “It was a strange race. But he tried hard.”
Team Pharoah decided almost immediately to point toward the Classic and to train all the way to Keeneland without a prep race. The horse was exhausted upon his return to California in early September. It had been an extraordinarily long campaign, from prep races in Arkansas to the Triple Crown to New Jersey to California, to upstate New York and back to California again. It seemed possible that Pharoah was finished. But Baffert slowly began ramping up the work to give him a fitting sendoff. “As soon as I started leaning on him again, he started liking it,” said Baffert. Pharoah’s resilience was nearly as astounding as his brilliance.
It seemed his biggest challenge in the Classic would come from Beholder, who had dominated male horses in winning the August Pacific Classic at Santa Anita. But Beholder spiked a fever upon arriving in Kentucky 10 days before the Classic and then bled into her lungs on a routine gallop Thursday. She was scratched by trainer Richard Mandella. Her defection opened the possibility that American Pharoah would be able to attain an easy lead in the Classic, a scenario that leaves him almost unbeatable. There was a possibility that late-blooming three-year-old Smooth Roller might challenge him early, but Smooth Roller was scratched on Saturday morning with a tendon injury. That left just eight horses, the smallest Classic since 1989, and the strong possibility that Pharoah would control the pace.
Two races before the Classic, Pharoah’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, walked into the Keeneland saddling paddock for another race. “I just found out that other horse [Smooth Roller] scratched,” said Espinoza to a friend. The friend, an acquaintance of Baffert’s, suggested that Pharoah might be the only speed in the race. “I hope so,” said Espinoza. He then smiled and added, “We’re going to be okay.”
In the hour before the Classic, Pharoah made a long, quiet walk from a distant barn where Breeders’ Cup horses were housed, to the Keeneland paddock. It was in sharp contrast to the madness that accompanied a similar walk on the day of the Kentucky Derby. In the paddock, Baffert saddled Pharoah and then let assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes leg up Espinoza. On Derby day in May, Baffert had remained in the paddock behind the grandstand to watch the race with his three older sons from his first marriage, and his 10-year-old son Bode, with wife, Jill. “That was one of my best memories of this whole thing,” said Baffert this week. They were nearly alone in the paddock, except for four sports journalists and a few other people.
Saturday Baffert remained behind again, but the scene was decidedly different, a riot of friends, media and many who fell into neither category. Zayat also stayed in the paddock with his large, extended family. As the horses wandered on the track and post time neared, Baffert tended to his nerves by telling the story of his first Breeders’ Cup, when a starched shirt and a cold wind left him with a peculiar condition familiar to marathoners and triathletes. “My nipples were sore,” he said, rubbing his chest for emphasis. The scheduled post time of 5:33 stretched nearly 20 minutes to 5:52. “It all comes down to the break,” said Baffert. It is what he has always said when Pharoah runs.
He gate opened. “Broke good,” said Baffert, impassively. As Pharoah eased to the lead, Baffert said, “Let him run, Victor!” Pharoah took the lead around the first turn, in comfortable fractions of 23.99 seconds for the first quarter and 47.50 seconds for the half mile. Surprisingly, 33-1 shot Effinex, with Mike Smith riding, eased up alongside. Smith often rides Baffert’s horses. “Mike, what are you doing to me?” shouted Baffert. Smith would say later, “I couldn’t keep up with him, so I worried about riding for second.”
The race took on the complexion of the Belmont, 1,000 miles southwest and five months later. A brief challenge by 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist fizzled out. Honor Code, the top older horse in the east, never had a chance to come from behind off such a slow pace. “Everybody was riding to be safe,” said Honor Code’s trainer, Shug McGaughey. Pharoah exploded out of the turn and opened up three lengths, then four, then five. Espinoza, who had pushed Pharoah to his limit only on the Derby victory and Travers loss – “All those big races, Victor just didn’t let him out,” said Baffert. “He saved something.” – let him roll through to the finish, showing off his dominance.
In the paddock, Baffert put his arms around Jill. “What a horse,” he said. Tears streamed down Jill Baffert’s cheeks. Bob Baffert’s eyes turned red. He doesn’t cry easily, but Pharoah has pushed him to the brink repeatedly. Ahmed Zayat leaped into Baffert’s arms, much as he did after the Belmont. Zayat does cry easily, and did. The owner’s glasses fell to the ground in the Keeneland paddock.
Racing historians will debate Pharoah’s greatness endlessly. They will praise him for his dominance, and they will criticize him for racing only 11 times in his career and never winning from far behind or when deeply troubled in a race. The Travers might have sold his harshest critics. But in the end, he was seldom challenged because he was simply too good. His Triple Crown defines him beyond discussion; his Breeders’ Cup is validation. A sport is richer for his presence.
Baffert, the glibbest of backstretch ballbusters, was left in awe. During the summer, he begged veteran jockey Gary Stevens to take a morning breeze on Pharoah, because he was certain that Stevens has never felt anything like Pharoah's remarkable stride mechanics. (Stevens never found the time.) During Breeders Cup week, he asked trainer Todd Pletcher, a multiple Eclipse Award-winner, to walk Pharoah, for the same reason. Pletcher wouldn’t do it, after all, it was Baffert's horse. Instead, Pletcher walked alongside, next to Baffert. “I’m so proud of this horse,” said Baffert. “I just wanted to share him with my friends in the sport. He's such a great horse. He brought so much to racing. It’s been a privilege to train this horse.”
Moments earlier, as the celebration unfolded in the Keeneland paddock, Baffert had found himself standing momentarily alone, no more hugs to give, no more hands to shake. He looked in all directions. “Where do we go now?” he shouted, his arms spread wide, beseeching help. In the gathering darkness of an autumn night, here was an answer: There is nowhere left to go. The ride is over and the mountain climbed. A brilliant horse walks home one last time. A sport holds on and never lets go.