One horse stole the show in 2015. In doing so, American Pharoah etched his name in the record books alongside some of the greatest horses of all time.
The son of Pioneerof the Nile completed the first Triple Crown in 37 years and joined an exclusive club that now has reached 12 members. The scintillating win at Belmont Park in June before a thunderous crowd erased the ghosts of Belmont’s past and ascended American Pharoah into rarefied air.
It was 365 days since the failed attempt by California Chrome at Big Sandy, the 13th failure since Affirmed crossed the wire in front of his rival Alydar in 1978.
To cap off his incredible 3-year-old season, American Pharoah beat older horses on Halloween night at Keeneland, winning the final race of his career in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It was a year for the ages.
Let’s take a look at the year in review by month.
January: California Chrome was voted 2014 Horse of the Year at the Annual Eclipse Awards held at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla. Constitution held off 2014 winner Lea in the Donn Handicap, the first big race of the year for handicap horses.
February: The Derby trail starts to heat up in New York as Far From Over wins the Withers at Aqueduct. The Bob Baffert-trained Dortmund, a son of 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, wins the Robert B. Lewis S. at Santa Anita and stakes first claim to top West Coast horse, at least for a month. Shared Belief beats California Chrome in the San Antonio H. in a rematch of last year’s Classic.
March: The Derby prep season goes into full swing and Carpe Diem emerges in the Tampa Bay Derby for Todd Pletcher and International Star starts his march to Louisville with his victory in the Louisiana Derby. Dortmund continues his winning ways, taking the San Felipe by nine lengths and raising some eyebrows on the left coast. American Pharoah starts his run to greatness with a win in the Rebel at Oaklawn. The month culminates with the Florida Derby, where the Pletcher-trained Materiality knocks off Upstart in Gulfstream’s signature race. American horses Chrome and Lea finish second and third in the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Back in the States, Shared Belief wins the Big Cap at Santa Anita and is ranked as the world’s best horse.
April: The winners of the four biggest Derby preps in April are Dortmund (Santa Anita Derby), Frosted (Wood Memorial), who closed like a freight train at the Big A, Carpe Diem (Bluegrass) and American Pharoah (Arkansas Derby), which captures the premier race at Oaklawn. Shared Belief is pulled up in the Charles Town Classic and is sidelined for the remainder of the year.
May: In the 141st Kentucky Derby, 3-1 favorite American Pharoah overtakes Firing Line and Dortmund in the stretch with jockey Victor Espinoza aboard to win the Run for the Roses. He continues his winning ways in the Preakness in a torrential downpour to keep his Triple Crown hopes alive. The mainstream media pays attention to the sport as the 37-year Triple Crown drought is in serious jeopardy of ending.
June: Honor Code wins the Met Mile on Belmont Day against an impressive field. With a nation rooting for America’s horse, American Pharoah rolls home before a deafening crowd of 90,000 to capture the Triple Crown. History is made and the country celebrates.
July: With one Triple Crown in the books, the focus back here in Western New York and Southern Ontario turns to the Canadian Triple Crown. Trainer Brian Lynch leads Shaman Ghost, the Marine winner, to victory in the Plate at Woodbine in Toronto. Fort Erie’s biggest race, the Prince of Wales, is won by longshot Breaking Lucky, ending the Canadian Triple Crown hopes of the Ghost. Saratoga Race Course opens and Texas Red wins the Jim Dandy and poses a possible threat to the Triple Crown champion if he decides to run in the Travers.
August: The month starts with American Pharoah romping over a Haskell field at Monmouth and in a surprise move the connections decide to race in the Travers later in the month. Even the best can have a bad day, and the champ goes down after being softened up by Frosted with substitute jockey Jose Lezcano aboard, caught by Keen Ice in deep stretch. Liam’s Map wins the Woodward after just missing in the Whitney.
September: Parx stages a big day of racing with two $1 million races on the card. I’m a Chatterbox keeps her solid season rolling with a win in the Cotillion and Frosted rebounds three weeks after his Travers performance to win the Pennsylvania Derby.
October: Greenpointcrusader keeps Pletcher from winning his fourth straight Champagne Stakes. The Breeders’ Cup is held at Keeneland for the first time and American Pharoah puts the cherry on top of his career with a win in North America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Impressive divisional wins over the two-day Cup weekend by Runhappy (Sprint), Stopchargingmaria (Distaff), Songbird (Juvenile Fillies), Found (Turf) and Nyquist (Juvenile) culminate a season for the ages.
November: American Pharoah heads to the breeding shed at Ashford Stud in nearby Versailles, Ky., scheduled to stand for $200,000. Tonalist caps a terrific career with a win in a highly competitive Cigar Mile at the Big A. Effinex proves his second place finish in the Classic was no fluke, winning the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.
December: Shared Belief passes away after a bout with colic early in the month. Tonalist is retired to Lane’s End Farm, joining Liam’s Map and Honor Code. California Chrome starts training toward a 2016 campaign.
It was quite a season for thoroughbred racing, with record viewers and big crowds at all of the major race days throughout the year. The magical season of 2015 will be tough to top in the coming year.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.