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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
Mr. Beyer repeatedly asserts that American Pharoah had no pace pressure in the Belmont Stakes. I disagree. Materiality and Johnnie V. asserted pace pressure on American Pharoah in a manner and to a degree consistent with retaining the possibility of winning the race. Sometimes a superior horse with a very high cruising speed simply "breaks the heart" of the competition.
This horse does not have to check some degenerate gamblers box, to prove that he is a great horse.He does not have to be the fastest horse of all-time to be considered great. What he is is the most accomplished horse of all time and no one can argue that. A Triple Crown winner, Breeders Cup Classic winner shuts the door on anyone's argument. Argument one CIGAR lost a bunch of race before his win streak not even a factor in the 93 triple crown chase. Argument 2 Curlin Lost Multiple time as 3 and 4 year old and to a filly. Argument 3 Secretariat is the most talented colt ever in my opinion but he lost twice to Onion and Prove out. He also did not race in the Gold Cup the only race that would of been close to the same category as the Classic in 1973, and he finish his career on turf which is the Secondary track in the United States.
One only has to read an Andrew Beyer column or the comments of his loyal acolytes to understand why horse racing in this country has literally fallen off the map in terms of popularity. Andy makes it his personal mission to crush any sense of wonder or excitement that might rear its ugly head and risk bringing new generations to the sport. What will Andy do with himself when the last track closes?
The problem is the expansion of the Breeders Cup. Fans were cheated out of this showdown because of the Dirt Mile-- a race that didn't even exist prior to 2007... 10 years ago, Liam's Map would've had to be in the Classic... unless he opted for the Sprint, a move that would've seemed 100 times more cowardly considering his finishes in the Woodward and the Whitney, both Classic preps. Expanding to 2 days and adding new "championship" divisions was a terrible decision. Considering how much more compelling the race would've been with the mere presence of Liam's Map, more fans should be upset about the 2-day Breeders Cup format. American Pharoah's feat will always be in the record books... but, sadly, the race that cinched his status as an all-time great will not be remembered for very long. The fans were cheated here.
AP won all but two races in his short, but spectacular career, he put together Secretariat type fractions in the Classic, and could be spoken of in the same breath as the great one, but both of them got beat, multiple times, mostly when they got hooked. I think they belong with the other super horses of their time, but not in a class by themselves. IMHO, Swaps, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Citation, and maybe even Shared Belief and others belong in that same group, but it was the press and media that made Secretariat seem so outstanding. Remember, Sham broke down in the Belmont, as he was pushing the Sec to a fabulous time, but also remember, after those early fractions with Sham on his shoulder, he was left to gallop alone for the remainder of the one and a half miles in world record time. But, he was beat by that same Sham and others before that race. AP should have a great life producing fast babies, that can run all day.
The old adage was, and I paraphrase...... the bigger the race, the more honest the race. There may have been a 180 degree pivot. Has racing taken a cue from reality based television? I guess this horse was an entertainment product and there was an immense amount of money and good publicity at risk. He was fed a steady diet of grinders and plodders most of his campaign. In the entire world, there wasn't a single speedball available to to run in this race. Meanwhile, the Ramseys after months of tireless searching and sleepless nights were able to find a gunner to enter and open a 20 length lead in the one turf race. It is fascinating that a breeding industry that is completely focused on breeding speed and has gone to great lengths to closely inbreed for speed produced zero speed. The one thing I liked about racing is I always thought that each participant was driven and motivated to beat the other guy for the individual reward. My fear is that it has gone the way of politics. Needless to say, I have gained respect for Dale Romans over the summer. Everyone else got what they wanted, and I hope we can move forward after the little girls and Breyer finish doing their cartwheels.
So the debate begins on just how great a champion was American Pharoah and where he stands in the hierarchy of the very best. So the debate will continue for the next three decades.
AP could only compete with the horses who lined up against him. That said - the excitement of the Classic went out the door with Liam's Map (who's connections ducked a chance at greatness for the sure thing of the Mile) and Beholder- who's had more bad luck with health at the Breeders Cup than most. Cannot fault AP or his connections - they danced EVERY dance. I'd solidly put AP in the top 50 of the last 100 years. He earned his spot. But NBC got all overheated when they started throwing out "best ever" and "up with Secretariat." Time may only matter in prison according to Van Berg - but it does matter in the stats and on the lists. Anyone wants to claim AP is Secretariat needs to pull out that WSJ side-by-side framed running of the 73 and 15 Belmonts. That really puts a factual and visual perspective on rank and history. Good article, Mr. Beyer.
AP is a phenomenal horse, but can you please explain how Mal Guapo, who broke the Keeneland track record going 1 1/4 miles on the dirt on Thursday, October 29th, beyered an 86? Mal Guapo's record didn't make the program because it was too late (you can look it up on Mal's race chart, though), but he ran a 2:03.40. I think an 86 for Mal Guapo is fair, and I'm too much of an AP fan to say anything about his 120, but I guess I'm too new to the horse racing world. Can someone please explain how 3 seconds (on the same track, same distance, same week) is the difference between an 86 beyer and a 120?