10/29/2015 11:57AM

In Classic, American Pharoah’s storybook career comes to an end

Barbara D. Livingston
American Pharoah will make the final start of his career in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – American Pharoah’s racing career began in California, his preps toward the Kentucky Derby began in Arkansas, and he has raced at eight tracks in six states in three time zones, but now, the circle finally is complete. He has returned to Kentucky, the state of his birth, to close out his racing career Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland before starting a new life as a stallion.

The calendar will show that his racing career lasted less than 14 months and totaled all of 11 starts. That’s a speck of time, yet in that time, he did so much. Most notably, he became the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Stories are told these days about how Seabiscuit united a country coming out of the Depression and how Secretariat was the hero needed at a time of divisiveness over Watergate and the war in Vietnam. Perhaps the legacy of American Pharoah will be far simpler but vitally important for the sport. After 37 years, American Pharoah showed that the Triple Crown is achievable. The spacing and distances of the races do not need to be altered.

“He showed it can be done,” said trainer Bob Baffert. “You just need the right horse.”

American Pharoah was the right horse on the track, rolling off eight straight victories and capping his Triple Crown with a flourish in the Belmont Stakes, and off the track, with a kindness that belied the ferociousness with which he competes.

“His personality is so different,” said jockey Victor Espinoza. “He’s super smart. He won’t do anything to you. He’s better than a little pet.”

:: American Pharoah connections reflect on Triple Crown winner's career

American Pharoah really did let people in, and those closest to him were generous in sharing him. The day after the Belmont Stakes, Baffert let the assembled media surround American Pharoah and touch him. A parade of people stopped by the barn in the weeks after the Belmont. When it finally was time to train for the encore of American Pharoah’s career, Baffert said he was “shutting down the petting zoo,” though if someone like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees happened by the barn, the zoo’s hours were extended.

Perhaps most famously, Ahmed Zayat, who bred and owns American Pharoah, lay down in the stall at Del Mar one afternoon with American Pharoah, a moment recorded by his son Justin, who uploaded the shot to Twitter.

“An incredible moment,” Ahmed Zayat said last week. “He’s the only horse you probably could do that with. The horse was almost, like, licking me. Bob was saying, ‘He loves your cologne.’ It was just total love, total passion. He’s so gentle. It defines how special he is.”

Now comes “the grand finale,” as Zayat calls it. The Breeders’ Cup began in 1984, so American Pharoah is the first Triple Crown winner to compete in it. In the Classic, he will be facing his elders for the first time, coming off a two-month layoff, and racing a demanding 1 1/4 miles over a track at which he never has raced.

“Just as a racing fan, I’m looking forward to it,” said Justin Zayat, the stable’s racing manager. “A rematch with Keen Ice … Honor Code [is in the race]. What a race.”

American Pharoah has come a long way since a year ago, when a suspensory injury prevented him from running in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he would have been favored, and kept him from working out again until February. His 2015 campaign has unfolded in three acts. First came the high-wire feat of getting him to and through his preps for the Kentucky Derby. Then followed a Triple Crown with three races that could not have been more different. And now, there is the final act, three races concluding with the Classic.

Remarkably, for a horse based in California, American Pharoah never raced there this year. Like Willie Nelson, he constantly was on the road again.

“All his races have been road games,” said Baffert. “It’s so hard to keep one going like that. That’s what makes him so special. No ordinary horse could do that. You’ve got to crank them up and crank them up. It takes a lot out of them. And he runs on anything – fast, slow, muddy. You’re not going to see a horse like this in a long time.”

American Pharoah had an abbreviated work tab coming into his first start of the year, the Rebel Stakes, which he won by 6 1/4 lengths on a sloppy, sealed track.

“His comeback race was exciting because it showed he was back,” said Justin Zayat. “It was nerve-wracking getting him to the Derby because one hiccup, and he wouldn’t have made it.”

American Pharoah returned to Oaklawn and won the Arkansas Derby, effortlessly cruising home eight lengths best.

“After the race, Bob was basically in tears,” said Justin Zayat. “He said, ‘Justin, I’ve never seen anything like that ever.’ ”

It was on to the Kentucky Derby.

“Other horses I won the Derby with, I thought I had a lot to do with it,” said Baffert. “This horse, I just needed to stay out of his way. He made me feel like, ‘How lucky am I to have this horse?’ When you have greatness like that, the only thing you think is, ‘Don’t mess it up.’ ”

Because of the expectations, Baffert said he felt great pressure at the Derby. He had won it three times previously but not since 2002, before his youngest son, Bode, was born. In addition, the Zayats had finished second in the Derby three times without winning. He didn’t want to let them down.

“I got sick that week, I was so stressed out,” said Baffert. “I had all four of my boys at the Derby. Pharoah got hot coming to the paddock. When it was over, I was drained.”

So was Justin Zayat, who lost his lunch.

“The extreme emotions of that are so entrenched,” said Ahmed Zayat. “After three seconds, it finally happened. My wife, Joanne, went from screaming, ‘Not again,’ thinking we were going to be second again, to crying tears of joy, and Justin is throwing up.”

Espinoza said the race was draining for him, too.

“The way he broke, I was so excited,” said Espinoza. “I was so happy going into the first turn, and then at the three-eighths, he was struggling. I never thought I was going to win. Even turning for home, I thought he wasn’t going to get it done. Probably at the eighth pole, that’s when I finally thought I could win. So many ups and downs in that race.”

It was gratifying for Baffert.

“Those Kentucky Derbies are so hard to get,” he said. “The Zayats were so deserving for what they’ve been through. The Derby, that was the one. The rest was, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ”

It absolutely poured at Pimlico as the horses went on the track for the Preakness, but American Pharoah skipped over the sloppy track and won by seven lengths. The bright lights of Broadway awaited.

American Pharoah continued to thrive. Despite the history standing in American Pharoah’s way, Baffert was confident before the Belmont.

“Me and my dad were sweating so badly that day, and here’s Bob cracking jokes,” said Justin Zayat. “In the paddock, he said, ‘Let’s go win this Belmont.’ ”

For Espinoza, it was the second straight year he had a chance to sweep the Triple Crown. He came up short in 2014 with California Chrome. He knew shortly after the start of the Belmont that this year would be different.

“I could feel I had the horse,” said Espinoza. “Baffert had him ready. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to win it.’ When the race is going on, you don’t hear the crowd. You just hear the horse breathing. You block everything out. But when he crossed the wire, I heard everything. The crowd was going crazy.”

American Pharoah had won in a romp. As announcer Larry Collmus memorably said on NBC and over the loudspeaker at Belmont Park, he was “finally the one.”

“He won the Belmont the right way,” Baffert said. “Victor turned for home full of horse. I thought, ‘He’s loaded. Wow.’ When he came to the finish, I didn’t know how to react. He made a lot of people feel really good that day.”

After a freshening, American Pharoah was cranked up anew for the Haskell Invitational, which he won without seemingly being asked for his best by Espinoza. Massive crowds turned out to see him train two mornings at Monmouth Park, and more was in store at Saratoga, where American Pharoah next went for the Travers.

American Pharoah lost for the first time since his debut 55 weeks earlier, but the energy he created in Saratoga Springs that weekend was electric.

“We’re very proud we were able to share him with the public,” said Ahmed Zayat. “He shipped everywhere, never ducked anyone.”

After the Travers, Baffert hit the reset button, giving American Pharoah plenty of time before a series of initially light works.

“He needed that to put the weight back on,” said Baffert. “I didn’t want him to tail off on me. It’s tough to keep them at that level for so long.”

But American Pharoah appears to have responded with a sharp series of recent workouts. And now, for all in his camp, comes the realization that the final race is here.

“It’s definitely a weird feeling,” said Justin Zayat. “There’s a sadness to it.”

Baffert added: “He’s become such a pet. He’s the focal point of the whole barn. Every day, somebody wants to see him. I’ve had some really nice horses, and when they leave, it’s tough. He’s accomplished so much. I just want him to go out and run a bang-up race.”

That’s Saturday. Soon thereafter, American Pharoah heads to his new life as a stallion at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, just down the road from here in Versailles.

“God willing, there will be lots of little Pharoahs running around,” said Ahmed Zayat.

Baffert will return to Santa Anita knowing he’ll never find a replacement for the best horse he’ll ever train. Even filling the stall American Pharoah occupied is a challenge.

“I don’t know what horse I’m going to put in that stall,” Baffert said. “It’s been a fun ride. He brought out the best in everybody. I still can’t believe I had a horse of this caliber.”