10/29/2015 12:32PM

Crist: Taking a last stand against American Pharoah

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Breeders’ Cup Saturday at Keeneland will, as usual, decide half a dozen year-end divisional championships and tantalize bettors with multimillion-dollar wagering pools. But this year is different. There is no Horse of the Year title on the line because American Pharoah cinched that award back in June, when he became the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

He is running for history, not hardware: Since American Pharoah was the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic was not run until 1984, the 3-year-old colt is the first who could record a Grand Slam of this country’s four best-known races.

The Classic lost a bit of its added historical appeal Thursday morning when Beholder was withdrawn from the race. Whether or not they would have hit the wire together, she and American Pharoah almost certainly will be going into racing’s Hall of Fame together the moment they are eligible to appear on the ballot for the first time in 2020. American Pharoah is a shoo-in to join his 11 Triple Crown-winning predecessors in the Hall, but Beholder has made some impressive history of her own.

If, as expected, she wins this year’s Eclipse Award for top older female, regardless of how Friday’s Distaff turns out, she will become the first filly since Cicada in 1961-63 to be honored as the sport’s champion 2-year-old filly (2012), champion 3-year-old filly (2013), and now older female. She already has won Grade 1 races at 2, 3, 4, and 5. Those are achievements of sustained excellence and durability as rare as a Triple Crown, if not as widely appreciated.

As if he needed any more help, American Pharoah figures to hold a huge tactical edge in a Classic surprisingly devoid of early speed in the absence of Liam’s Map and now Beholder. American Pharoah is 4 for 4, by a combined 23 lengths, in races where he’s been a length or more clear after half a mile.

Nonetheless, I am going to try to beat him.

I stipulate to having been an Honor Code fanboy ever since he stormed from 22 lengths off the pace to win his debut at Saratoga 26 months ago. One thing after another kept him out of the classics, and he made just two starts at 3, but this year as a 4-year-old, he has scored smashing victories with whirlwind finishes to win the Met Mile and Whitney Stakes against better fields than the 3-year-olds whom American Pharoah has been manhandling this year.

Honor Code is an underrated, world-class racehorse, but he has his drawbacks Saturday. He comes in off a dull final prep, though he was probably undertrained for that race, a mere tune-up for the Cup. He hasn’t run at 10 furlongs yet, though this should hardly be a problem for a son of A.P. Indy and a Storm Cat mare. He is going to need someone to put pressure on a loose-on-the-lead American Pharoah to be at his most effective. However, at something in the friendly neighborhood of 9-2 against an odds-on American Pharoah, those are risks worth taking.

With Beholder scratched, the second-most-accomplished horse on the card is Golden Horn, the Epsom Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner who would complete a spectacular international campaign with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf one race before the Classic. His best races make him look five lengths better than his competition on paper. I cannot in good conscience recommend betting against him or against the standout 2-year-old filly Songbird in the Juvenile Fillies.

In the six other Cup races Saturday, I picked Green Mask (Turf Sprint), Cavorting (Filly and Mare Sprint), Legatissimo (Mile), Salutos Amigos (Sprint), Karakontie (Mile), and Greenpointcrusader (Juvenile). These are mild preferences rather than strong convictions, and I almost as easily could have selected Undrafted, Super Majesty, Queen’s Jewel, Private Zone, Make Believe, and Brody’s Cause, my second choices in those races. These are deep fields with plenty of plausible candidates, and a parade of winning favorites is less likely than a head-scratching $50 winner somewhere in the sequence.

Speaking of sequences, note that the minimum bet for this year’s pick six has been reduced from $2 to $1, which should open the bet up to many players who had previously been priced out of it. In a lineup that begins with the Filly and Mare Turf and ends with the Classic, my plan is to spread out early, consider Golden Horn a free bingo square, get alive to both American Pharoah and Honor Code, and – with all due respect to the Triple Crown winner – root for the latter.