Updated on 11/02/2015 9:52AM

Breeders' Cup Classic: American Pharoah faces strong cast in career finale

Susie Raisher
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is set to start in Saturday's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Keeneland suffered a major blow Thursday when Beholder, the race’s second choice, was withdrawn from the race after bleeding during her gallop that morning, trainer Richard Mandella said.

“Obviously, when you see that, you can’t put her under the stress of a race,” Mandella said.

Beholder, a two-time champion mare, would have been trying to win a third different Breeders’ Cup race, an unprecedented feat. Her absence leaves a field of nine, and the loss of a major pace presser enhances the chances of American Pharoah, the Triple Crown winner, who is making his final start on Saturday. He will become the first Triple Crown winner to compete in a Breeders’ Cup, which began in 1984, six years after Affirmed won the Triple Crown.

The Classic still includes a Triple Crown winner, the two top older males in the country, one of the best horses in Europe, and a couple of 3-year-olds who appear to be reaching their career-best form.

American Pharoah will be strongly favored, both because of his star status – being the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed and only the 12th ever – and because of a race shape that, on paper, has him as the controlling speed.

But this is a big ask. He will be entering the Classic off a layoff of more than two months, will be racing 1 1/4 miles without a recent prep, will be facing older horses for the first time, and will be racing over a track on which he will not have set foot until Friday.

His recent workouts, though, give every indication that American Pharoah will fire his best shot. But bettors will have to ask if taking a short price is worth it. American Pharoah was 8-5 on the initial line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper, and 6-5 on the track morning line of Mike Battaglia, and that was prior to the scratch of Beholder, so he will be an even heavier favorite now.

The task for the late runners got a lot more difficult because the horse adjudged to tackle American Pharoah the strongest and the earliest is now out.

Those late runners do pack a punch. Honor Code showed a devastating turn of foot when winning both the Met Mile and the Whitney, Grade 1 races that stamp him as the best older male in the country. Like American Pharoah, this will be the final start of his career, but unlike American Pharoah, this will be his first start beyond 1 1/8 miles. He has done his best with plenty of pace to run into, so the early dynamics of the race could determine his fate.

Tonalist was second in the Met Mile and third in the Whitney, both times to Honor Code, but he enters the Classic off a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second straight year, so 1 1/4 miles is right in his wheelhouse.

Irish raider Gleneagles will be making his first start on dirt and his first start beyond a mile, and though his pedigree suggests he’s a turf horse, there is no denying his quality – he has won four Group 1 races – nor that of his world-class team of trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore.

Frosted and Keen Ice have spent most of the year in the shadow of American Pharoah, but both have given him trouble.

Frosted, fourth in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont, was American Pharoah’s early nemesis in the Travers, and even if he changes tactics – as expected – this time, he clearly is on the improve, coming off a win in the Pennsylvania Derby when reunited with his favorite jockey, Joel Rosario, who is back aboard.

Keen Ice has progressed with every race and comes off the best performance of his life when defeating American Pharoah in the Travers.

“He’s no longer a victim of pace,” said trainer Dale Romans.

Smooth Roller should be closest to American Pharoah early, but his light training pattern since arriving here does not inspire confidence.

Effinex has won twice at 1 1/4 miles this year, including over Tonalist in the Suburban Handicap.

Hard Aces won the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup at Santa Anita in June but was no factor in either of his subsequent starts, both at 1 1/4 miles.