American Pharoah’s performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland was everything for which a horse racing fan could have hoped from the 12th Triple Crown winner’s swan song: his devastatingly easy victory was never in doubt, meaning it could be viewed with awe and with joy, and without a trace of apprehension. While critics might attribute the margin and ease to a perfect pace setup – not to mention the absence of his arguably-strongest competitor following the scratch of Beholder – it is unfair to knock a horse for being talented enough to take advantage of the scenario presented to him (after all, Beholder herself sat a dream trip when she romped in the Pacific Classic).
And American Pharoah did not simply “take advantage” of what was presented to him; he did not cruise early and struggle home to just hang on in a victory that could be solely attributed to the setup. Rather he turned a 2-length advantage after six furlongs into a 6-length margin four furlongs later by running the fastest mile-and-a-quarter in the history of Keeneland. Two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist was in a good spot early but unable to take advantage, similarly to Frosted; and Keen Ice only lost ground to the winner during the course of the race. Honor Code did manage to make up 4 lengths on American Pharoah, but that still left him 11 lengths in arrears at the wire.
A “perfectly run time trial” the Classic might have been, but it was no less “ludicrously impressive” for that – as attested to by the (at least somewhat) objective Racing Post Rating and Beyer Speed Figure assigned to American Pharoah for his Classic romp. For all of Cigar’s consistency during his 1995 tour de force and Ghostzapper’s brilliance during his sparse 2005 campaign, American Pharoah’s 2015 season is the most impressive of those completed by a Thoroughbred during my lifetime.
His dismantling of a strong Classic field (which this year’s remained, even without Beholder) was the perfect follow-up to American Pharoah’s defeat in the Travers at Saratoga – a race in which I think American Pharoah’s performance was just as “gallant” as the chart-caller deemed his Classic victory.
In what hindsight demonstrates was a suicide mission, Frosted and his substitute jockey, Jose Lezcano, sacrificed their own chance at a victory in the Midsummer Derby by staying close to American Pharoah and cranking up the pressure early, forcing the Triple Crown winner through a sub-:47 internal half-mile. Lezcano also engaged in a tactical ride by which he kept Frosted pinned against American Pharoah off the turn in an attempt to intimidate the champ. And it still didn’t work – Frosted may have gotten in front of American Pharoah briefly, but his exertions took their toll and American Pharoah was able to fight his way clear of Frosted by more than 2 lengths at the wire.
Unfortunately, while American Pharoah gallantly turned back the challenge of Frosted, it left him unable to battle back in the final strides when Keen Ice went by to win by less than a length – Keen Ice, who was another that capitalized on a perfect trip to turn in a big performance.
(Interestingly, despite the more intense pace scenario in the Travers, the only fraction of that race which was faster than those turned in by American Pharoah under minimal pressure in the Classic was the one-mile split of 1:35.08 at Saratoga, compared to 1:35.47 at Keeneland. This lends credence to Byron Rogers’ assertion that American Pharoah’s stride – incredibly efficient when not under pressure – is better-suited to consistently solid quarter-mile times (albeit more of them in succession than most horses) rather than being able to turn in a single, faster split to put away his rivals.)American Pharoah overcomes pace pressure, and the elements, to take the Preakness
The Travers was not American Pharoah’s only race this year in which he faced adversity – he overcame a 5-wide trip and a rival at his peak (Firing Line) to win the Derby going away, and in the Preakness he was forced to gun early from the rail in a monsoon before running his overmatched rivals off their feet (the Preakness fractions, again in keeping with Rogers’ theory as they were much faster early than later in the race, probably said more about American Pharoah’s competition that day than anything.)
But American Pharoah’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victory, much like his historic Belmont Stakes triumph, was all about the best horse getting an ideal setup and taking full advantage.