11/02/2015 1:51PM

Beyer: Pharoah checked final box in Classic


As American Pharoah made the final stretch run of his career, drawing away from his pursuers at Keeneland, he gave most racing fans what they wanted to see: the performance that certified his place in history. He was already the first colt in 37 years to capture the Triple Crown. Now he was the first to win those three tests plus the nation’s definitive championship race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. People who witnessed the feat cannot expect to see it duplicated in their lifetimes.

American Pharoah led all the way and crushed his competition by 6 1/2 lengths. For racing fans who wanted further evidence to place the winner in the pantheon of all-time greats, he did something he had never done before: He ran extremely fast. Time is the one objective standard by which to measure horses of different generations, and Pharoah’s previous winning times – such as his 2:03.02 for 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby – had been unexceptional. Trainer Bob Baffert was looking for something special Saturday, not just a victory. He said before the Classic, “I just hope he puts on a show.”

With jockey Victor Espinoza urging him through this stretch, American Pharoah ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.07. The fact that this was a track record doesn’t mean anything – Keeneland rarely runs races at the distance – but speed figures confirmed its excellence. American Pharoah earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 120, the best in any Breeders’ Cup event since Ghostzapper’s 124 in the 2004 Classic.

After the runaway victory, the crowd at Keeneland roared, and the superlatives flew on NBC’s exuberant coverage. (“His legacy as one of racing’s all-time greats is assured!” “He’s right up there with Secretariat!”) The only possible discordant notes might come from handicappers who recognize that American Pharoah had a perfect setup Saturday.

Partly because of defections and late scratches, American Pharoah had only seven challengers, none of whom possessed an iota of early speed. American Pharoah appeared certain to secure an unchallenged lead, and he did. The rival closest to him was Effinex, who had never been first or second in the early stages of any of his 18 lifetime starts.

When a racehorse takes a clear early lead without any pressure, he often will run the race of his life. Winning a race after encountering early pressure, or other types of adversity, is more difficult, and the ability to do so is the true measure of a Thoroughbred. American Pharoah had already demonstrated the truth of that axiom. He looked invincible when he led all the way to win the Belmont Stakes against a field devoid of speed. Subsequently, in the Travers Stakes, he suffered his only defeat of the year when he was subjected to a hard head-and-head challenge. That’s why the prospect of a potential confrontation between American Pharoah and Liam’s Map was so intriguing.

Liam’s Map had delivered two brilliant performances at Saratoga this summer and appeared capable of beating the Triple Crown winner. Surprisingly, trainer Todd Pletcher chose not to run him in the $5 million Classic, entering him instead in the $1 million Dirt Mile on Friday’s card. This move raised some suspicions that Pletcher might be acting cautiously because Liam’s Map was not in top form. That theory was dispelled Friday.

When Liam’s Map broke a step slowly, jockey Javier Castellano found himself on the rail, with horses in front of him and outside of him, unable to employ his mount’s customary high speed. On the final turn, he still was surrounded, as Lea – a formidable foe with more than $2 million in career earnings – shot to a lead of nearly three lengths. By the time Liam’s Map finally extricated himself from traffic, his position appeared almost hopeless, yet within a matter of strides, he targeted Lea and blew past him to prevail by 2 1/2 lengths. The winner’s speed figure, despite all the trouble, was 114. It was a sensational effort, arguably as good as the one American Pharoah delivered the next day.

With Liam’s Map primed to run a great race, why wasn’t he in the Classic? There has been no clear answer to that question. Skipping the Classic isn’t Pletcher’s style – he spends his career aiming to win the biggest races. Owner Vincent Viola reportedly wanted to take the more conservative route. Moreover, Viola sold an interest in Liam’s Map to Lane’s End Farm, where the horse will stand at stud now that his racing career is over. Maybe the farm had some influence on the decision since it owned Honor Code, one of the contenders in the Classic.

Whatever the reason, racing fans missed seeing a great showdown – potentially the best in the Breeders’ Cup since Sunday Silence against Easy Goer in 1989. If Liam’s Map – who is at least as quick as American Pharoah – had seized the lead, the Classic would have been a different race and a much tougher one for the Triple Crown winner.

The absence of Liam’s Map can’t be held against American Pharoah, of course. He can only beat the rivals who show up. If he regularly benefits from easy trips, as he did Saturday, it is partly because he has the speed and tractability to secure a favorable tactical position and avoid adversity. But the final race of his career – his only test against older horses – would have been more satisfying if he had been forced to overcome a formidable challenge instead of winning in a cakewalk.

©2015 The Washington Post