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.