11/02/2015 3:11PM

Hovdey: Pharoah pitch perfect in final encore

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Jimmy Barnes sat in a chilly tack room in a dark corner of Barn 62 at Keeneland’s training center last Saturday, leaning back in a camp chair, his hands stuffed deep in the pockets of a down vest.

“Sad to see him go? Are you kidding? No way,” he said in answer to a visitor’s question. “In fact, I’m jealous. I’d love to be retiring like him.”

“Him,” of course, was American Pharoah, at that moment lolling quietly in a nearby stall with his racing gear hung on the webbing, an hour or so from his final start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Barnes said. “I love being around him. He’s such a cool horse. But you can’t be selfish. He’s going to have a great life. And with him, there are no regrets. We accomplished everything we set out to do. You don’t get to say that very often in this game.”

Barnes was right, as long as winning the Triple Crown is considered the ultimate achievement in Thoroughbred racing. As of this morning, I believe it still is.

But at that particular moment, American Pharoah had one more hill to climb in America’s richest horse race. At $5 million, the Breeders’ Cup Classic lives in the same fiscal neighborhood as the Arc de Triomphe, the Japan Cup, and the Melbourne Cup, and only the $10 million Dubai World Cup is a richer race on dirt.

It was therefore a fitting climax for American Pharoah since everything about him fairly reeks of high finance. Bred and owned by the high-rolling Ahmed Zayat, trained by the camera-friendly Bob Baffert, and ridden by celebrity dancer and part-time philanthropist Victor Espinoza, the Pharoah phenomenon was a five-star experience from Day 1.

And yet, to witness the reaction of the jam-packed crowd at cozy Keeneland last Saturday, you could only conclude that American Pharoah also was the stuff of blue-collar folklore, cherished as a classic colt who delivered far more than a memorable Triple Crown, deeply admired as a Thoroughbred of uncommon courage and consistency.

They cheered him when he emerged from the saddling stalls to make the long walk to the far end of the forested Keeneland paddock. They cheered louder when Espinoza got a leg up from Barnes and steered his colt out onto the track. And they cheered loudest of all when the field for the 32nd Classic broke from the gate at the top of the Keeneland stretch and American Pharoah went immediately to the lead.

Then came the hush. As the field glided past the wire the first time, the volume went suddenly from 11 to zero. It was a weird, almost reverent pause in the tumult. Pavarotti had taken the stage. Yo-Yo Ma had drawn his bow. Picasso had raised his brush, to wild applause, and now it was time to watch in wonder as the artist created another masterpiece.

Which it was, from beginning to end. American Pharoah has been accused this year of being a lucky horse, blessed with soft paces that prevented decent opposition from denting the armor of his natural speed. But there was nothing lucky about losing a shoe in the Rebel Stakes and winning anyway, or answering the desperate challenge of the classy Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby, or being the only horse in the Preakness field to handle torrents at Pimlico as if it were nothing more than a springtime drizzle.

The miracle of American Pharoah has been his stride, which is a function of conformation, which is put into action by a network of musculature that defies criticism. Most horses can cruise a series of quarters in 24 seconds, and a decent percentage can throw in a 22-and-change if circumstances allow. But after a while, after six, seven, or eight furlongs, they begin to pay a price. For American Pharoah, that price was always low.

“I love to watch him when he gets into that perfect frame, with Victor so beautifully balanced,” said retired jockey and TV analyst Richard Migliore. “As a rider, it’s an indescribable feeling. You know the rest of them are working so much harder just to keep up, no matter what the pace.”

The Keeneland crowd came roaring back as American Pharoah rounded the final turn, leaving Tonalist and Frosted spinning their wheels, and then answered a challenge from Mike Smith and Effinex, the winner of the Suburban Handicap. It was just enough to fool the newcomer into thinking it might be a horse race after all. But no, it was not. It was a valediction.

Up in the stands, Richard Mandella watched with emotions decidedly mixed. He had the grand mare Beholder primed to give American Pharoah a challenge, but she had to be withdrawn two days earlier due to the lingering effects of a shipping fever.

“It was a great race,” Mandella said. “I wish we could have given it a try, and I think it would have been more interesting had she been in there, but you couldn’t predict how it might have come out. You sure have to take your hat off to the winner.”

By the time American Pharoah hit the line nearly seven lengths clear, the crowd was fully committed. They cheered him pulling up around the clubhouse turn. They cheered him coming back with the outrider (so loudly that they spooked poor Keen Ice, who was walking home), and when American Pharoah got to the winner’s circle and the crowd took a breath, Baffert waved his arms to stir them once again for a final curtain call.

It was, in the best sense, a golden last hurrah.

Declan More than 1 year ago
Until Beholder beat a questionable field in the Pacific Classic, she was, to be sure, one of the top race mares of the past decade or more. But, realistically, she mainly beat up on the same group of females in SoCal until that race, which isn't a knock on her, but certainly a factor that seems to be overlooked by those speculating she would have given AP a serious challenge. Logically, if you think Beholder could have beaten or even threatened AP, you must also say that she's as good as Zenyatta, who missed winning two Breeder's Cup Classics by a nose. I don't think you can say that (and no one was even suggesting that, even after the Pacific Classic). I am willing to reassess my opinion if she stays in training and beats the best remaining three year old colts as well as Shared Belief and Chrome in the spring. Until the, she's the best female in the U.S. (on dirt) by far, but no more.
Paul Garcia More than 1 year ago
The rabbit naysayers are full of baloney. When I was a kid, my brother and I ran our first 10k sprinting at the start. Halfway, we were spent and had to walk. In our next race, we paced ourselves and I got 2nd in my age group and he got 3rd in his. Did we become excellent runners overnight. Nonsense. We ran the next race correctly. When Secretariat beat Sham, Sham was no rabbit. Entering a rabbit in the field would have proven nothing. However, if Belholder had been in there it would have been a match.
philcoforde More than 1 year ago
Had high hopes for Tonalist, but AP left him and the others in the DUST. BRILLIANT RACEHORSE and as usual, great recap from JH !
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Tim More than 1 year ago
Shove that spam where the sun don't shine
Pete Gold More than 1 year ago
I love the part about Keen Ice. Im a Romans fan but that fool thought he could compete he should've split his Travers winnings with Frosteds connections. Im glad he brought Keen Ice for a Halloween Nightmare so all wrongs could be righted n all questions answered. Im going to miss American Pharoah my dad taught me to apprechiate a horse with guts who trys and American Pharoah is the most honest horse ive ever seen in that sense God Bless you Pharoah n thank you best of luck in retirement my watch list will be awful busy in a few years
Frank More than 1 year ago
Very well said Pete -- and my dad taught me the same thing... And I agree take nothing away from AP he had guts and was as honest as they come -- I loved the Travers most of all his races when he got to show his true guts and went down like a true great champion does -- battling with all his heart... Its like the breeders said about Seattle Slew -- they wanted the Slew that went down battling in the Marlboro Cup...
jeff More than 1 year ago
Confused by this last statement as Slew won Marlboro Cup easily, trouncing Affirmed.
Meydan Rocks More than 1 year ago
Amen. I thought Dale was a bit too grand in taking all the credit for the Traver's win. I love Frosted dearly. His grit reminds me of Silver Charm. He just came at the wrong time. I fear the Traver's and the effort he put forth will prove to be his undoing. How many lengths did AP pound Keen Ice by in the end?
mike More than 1 year ago
Pete, good points. Romans has a mouth as big as his belly.
Frank More than 1 year ago
Horse racing got what they wanted read all the headlines - the perfect ending, going out a winner and a story book ending. It seems to be Hollywood scripted like reality TV is - this was reality TV at its best.... To all the Nah sayers, answer this - all of horse racing saw in the Travers how you take down this champion 3yr old (like you do any speed horse) -- why didnt anybody put a rabbit in the race like Ramsey's did one race before in the Turf? Why did all the competition speed or otherwise scratch or go another route (i.e. Beholder, Liams Map)? Also, look closely at reply of BCC and watch Victor's hands on the backstretch when he slows down AP -- watch how Effinex also slows down to make sure he doesnt get along side AP.... And just to put things into perspective - the horse that beat AP in the Travers at the time was eligible for an Alw N1x - and today is still eligible for Alw N2x Im just calling it out - I do love the horse and this one was the right one to set the table for...
Fred Greenstein More than 1 year ago
well said indeed
Meydan Rocks More than 1 year ago
Human rabbits get sick of doing all the work and never ever getting the glory. Horses resent that too. It's just that we're too tone deaf to hear their cries.
saratogajunkie More than 1 year ago
You should have made a fortune off the race if it was such a sure thing...best horse won..period.