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Gene Kershner’s Post Time: Pharoah goes out a winner

LEXINGTON, Ky. – As daylight started to wane on a brisk autumn day at venerable Keeneland Racecourse deep in the Bluegrass, the sparkling career of the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years also came to a close.

American Pharoah made one final dominant entry in thoroughbred racing’s record books, adding the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic to the Triple Crown glory he achieved in the spring. The Triple Crown winner thrilled the 50,000-plus race fans attending the first Breeders’ Cup World Championships held at this historic racecourse.

The jet-setting son of Pioneerof the Nile put the finishing touches on a 3-year-old season for the ages, one that we may never see again in our lifetimes. We’re talking Joe DiMaggio 56-game hitting streak level stuff here.

The colt with the misspelled name avenged his lone loss of his 3-year-old campaign in the Travers to Keen Ice and vaulted his legacy to a new atmosphere with the win in North America’s richest race. He became the first horse in history to win the Triple Crown and win a Breeders’ Cup Classic.

American Pharoah completed the mile-and-a-quarter trek in 2:00:07, besting his closest competitor by six-and-a-half lengths, tying the largest margin of victory in the history of the Classic. He became the second straight 3-year-old to win the Classic, and fourth since 2007.

American Pharoah returned $3.40 to his backers for the win, $3 to place and $2.40 to show. The Triple Crown winner earned $2,750,000 for the victory, bringing his career winnings to $8,650,300.

Second-place finisher Effinex paid $14.20 for place and $6.60 to show. Honor Code completed a $2 trifecta that paid $322.60, and paid $3.40 to show.

When West Coast invader Smooth Roller scratched the morning of the race, the lack of any horse in the race that could press Pharoah and keep him honest was out the window. With no horse pressing him, American Pharoah made an easy half mile in 47.50, the mile in 1:35.47 and cruised away with an easy victory in a race with no pace.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who piloted second-place finisher Effinex, happened to have the best view of American Pharoah’s romp. He tried to keep up early and stayed within two lengths of the winner at the three-quarter mile mark, but just couldn’t keep on.

“He’s just a brilliant horse, man,” said Smith in the horse tunnel after the race. “At least my vocabulary doesn’t do him justice. Effinex is a not a bad horse and I went at him for a little bit there. But wow, he kept hitting gears; I thought I better stop doing it to see that I get second anyway.”

The frustration of the lack of pace was not lost on jockey Javier Castellano, who rode third-place finisher Honor Code, a horse that needed an honest pace to utilize his late-closing running style.

“There was no speed in the race, nobody went after anybody,” said Castellano. “The only speed horse was American Pharoah, in the way the race set up. It’s good for the fans and good for the sport seeing a Triple Crown winner win the Classic.”

Honor Code’s Hall of Famer trainer Shug McGaughey praised American Pharoah, but also lamented the lack of pace.

“Well, as a trainer this is the first Triple Crown that I’ve ever seen and I thought he was a very deserving Triple Crown winner. To see him come back and the run the way he ran against this field of horses, my hat’s off to him,” said McGaughey. “I wish somebody put a little pressure on him somewhere down the line, but nobody did. The race was over once they crossed the backside.”

There wasn’t going to be a better finish to this thoroughbred racing season that the connections of American Pharoah graced us with. The sportsmanship shown by the Zayat Stables, the owner, and trainer Bob Baffert in an age when horses typically head directly to the breeding shed upon the completion of the Triple Crown series was truly incredible.

Jockey Victor Espinoza won his first Classic aboard American Pharoah over a fast track. The win was the third Breeders’ Cup victory of Espinoza’s career. He won previously on Spain (2000 Distaff) and Take Charge Brandi last year (Juvenile Fillies).

The win is somewhat bittersweet for owner Zayat Stables and Baffert who will relinquish the Pharoah to Coolmore Ashford Stud right down the road from Keeneland. His breeding rights were purchased after the Kentucky Derby at an undisclosed price with the Zayats negotiating the ability to race him through the Breeders’ Cup.

Baffert won his second straight Classic and the relief started to set in after the race.

“I’m emotional right now. I wanted him to go out a winner. It was for the people who came to see this and I’m glad he gave the people what they wanted to see. I’ll never have another horse like him,” said Baffert.

When asked about judging American Pharoah’s greatness, the “S” word came up; but Baffert avoided making any comparisons.

“To me, Secretariat was the greatest horse I ever saw, watched run,” he said. “This horse really brought racing back to the wonderful part of history and America. Like in any sport, you want to see something spectacular and he delivered.”

America’s horse went out the way true champions do.

On top.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.