10/29/2015 12:27PM

Hovdey: Elders pose final test for American Pharoah


The great final acts in sports are unpredictable. Ted Williams could have doubled off the wall in his last time at bat. Instead, he hit one in the seats. Johnny Longden was going to retire at age 59 no matter what happened in his last ride. Then he won the San Juan Capistrano by a nose. And when Michael Jordan played his final game with the Bulls in 1998, you figured they’d give him the ball, but he didn’t have to sink the game winner against the Jazz that gave Chicago the NBA crown. Nice shot.

American Pharoah’s farewell on Saturday in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland will mark a bittersweet moment. What he does with the moment in the face of tough opposition remains to be seen. No matter what happens, though, the handsome colt with the unflappable air will waltz into the sunset having made an impact on the game that soared higher and farther into the cultural atmosphere than any Thoroughbred since the days of Secretariat.

But first American Pharoah will be required to get hot and dirty for 1 1/4 miles around Keeneland’s main track, which has spent most of Breeders’ Cup week awash in good ol’ Kentucky mud. His training and condition have pleased everyone who counts. His speed and strategic assets appear intact. And if track conditions have ever bothered him before, he’s never complained.

That leaves only one question worth serious discussion as the Triple Crown winner bows out:

Can he beat the old guys?

It is an important point, one not lost in history. Great horses are judged on their ability to withstand competition from more than one foal crop. Theories are all over the map as to which generation has the advantage in the fall, older or younger, which is why the Breeders’ Cup Classic has become a legitimate and exciting place to test assumptions.

In fact, the Classic has been the setting for some emphatic displays of superiority by the younger generation going as far back as 1985, when the 3-year-old Proud Truth rose from a long layoff to win at Aqueduct. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer put on a show of 3-year-old pride at Gulfstream Park in 1989 – both ended up in the Hall of Fame – while in 1994, Concern led a parade of 3-year-olds finishing first through fourth in the Classic at Churchill Downs.

Six years later, also at Churchill Downs, the 3-year-olds Tiznow and Giant’s Causeway towered over their older opposition in a duel for the ages. Then, just last year, it was Toast of New York and California Chrome laying hard on Bayern at the end of the Classic, with a troubled Shared Belief not far behind. All of them were 3.

Five months ago, in the wake of American Pharoah’s coronation as the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, such questions of how he compared with his elders did not matter. The accomplishments of older horses, no matter their worth, were rendered to the tiniest type at the bottom of every racing story headlined with American Pharoah’s wins in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes.

Anyway, the competition was difficult to pin down. The newly turned 4-year-olds Shared Belief and California Chrome were taken out of the picture early after exploits in West Virginia and abroad. Bayern, the reigning Classic winner, had a tough winter. Tonalist, the winner of the 2014 Belmont Stakes, came back with a flourish of hope in the Westchester, while Honor Code, a gorgeous beast who was deprived of a chance at the classics at age 3, put on a show in the Metropolitan Handicap on the same afternoon as American Pharoah’s Belmont triumph.

But beyond the core of industry insiders who knew how good it was, Honor Code’s Met Mile registered barely a blip on the sports radar, and Tonalist was that horse who deprived California Chrome of his Triple Crown. It was still American Pharoah’s show, especially after he came through like a champ to win the Haskell Invitational and even after his upset by Keen Ice in the Travers.

Bob Baffert, the man who once donned a jack-o-lantern head on Halloween for a winner’s-circle photo, made every right move with American Pharoah to get him through not only the Triple Crown but also his two prep races and a dicey foot problem along the way. Since then, he has been juggling the demands of hungry Pharoah fans with the need to train his horse effectively.

Now that the reality of American Pharoah’s final race and retirement have sunk in, Baffert’s thoughts have turned to what might have been. On a recent visit to Old Friends Farm near Lexington, where the Baffert runners Silver Charm and Game On Dude are living as happy pensioners, the trainer fantasized about a 4-year-old racehorse version of American Pharoah. Game On Dude is a gelding, but Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm raced until he was 5 before going to stud, won a Dubai World Cup, and was an unlucky second in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

There is a reason, though, that visitors are greeted by the Baffert barns at Santa Anita decorated with plaques advertising a bounty of victories in Triple Crown races. It is an intimidating piece of self-promotion, but it also is a testament to the fact that Baffert has become the master of the young horse, with a clientele inspired to invest by the lure of the Triple Crown.

The trainer guided American Pharoah through the roughest waters any young horse could face and emerged with the first Triple Crown winner in more than a generation. In light of that, it seems greedy, after all he has accomplished and meant to the game, to ask American Pharoah to satisfy further demands of racing history and defeat older runners as well. But at least he has such worthy opponents as Honor Code and Tonalist, so let’s see if he can take it deep one last time.