Hail and farewell, American Pharoah.
The Triple Crown champion won the US$5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths, taking charge out of the gate in his final race before retirement.
The 3-year-old colt ran 1 1/4 miles in a track-record 2:00.07 as the sentimental 3-5 favourite among the crowd of 50,155 at Keeneland. Fans stood 20-deep all along the rail, cheering and snapping cellphone photos of the superstar horse and jockey Victor Espinoza.
“This was for Pharoah,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “We wanted him to go out the champion he is.”
American Pharoah took on seven rivals after Smooth Roller and champion mare Beholder dropped out. Beholder had the speed and the class to potentially make the race a contest, but a lung ailment sidelined her on Thursday.
It probably didn’t matter how many faced American Pharoah on a cloudy, cool day in the cradle of American horse country.
He smashed the old track record of 2:05.36 by more than five seconds.
“The winner is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,” said Irishman Aidan O’Brien, who trained last-place Gleneagles.
It was a feel-good moment for a sport that has been battered and bruised in the US – all the troubles of declining attendance and drug controversies were wiped away in two magical minutes.
“It’s a horse racing fairy tale and I just happen to be in it,” Baffert said.
“It’s a lot of pressure to train a horse like this because I didn’t want to let the horse down and I didn’t want to let the fans down. I’m just so proud of him; it’s like watching my child out there.”
American Pharoah won nine of his 11 career starts, including the first sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years this spring. He earned a total of US$8,650,300 for Ahmed Zayat, the Egyptian-born owner who chose to keep his popular horse in training so fans could see him run.
“We wanted him to go out as a winner,” Zayat said. “He is a winner.”
Unlike most high-strung, unpredictable thoroughbreds, he was friendly and patient with fans who wanted to pet and pose with him.
“The kindest, friendliest, happiest, easiest, most brilliant horse I’ve ever seen in my life,” Zayat said. “He connected with people. He loves people. I knew he got it.”
Next up for American Pharoah is a new career as a breeding stallion at a farm in Kentucky bluegrass country near Keeneland.
“It’s going to be sad to see him go,” Baffert said. “But I think he’s done enough. He’s proved enough.”
Turning to his 10-year-old son Bode, the trainer said: “We’re going to miss him, aren’t we, buddy?”