American Pharoah finished off his brilliant career by winning Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.
American Pharoah’s brilliant racing career came to an end on Saturday with yet another dazzling, dominating victory in America’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
American Pharoah dominated some of the best horses in the world, winning by an astounding 6 1/2 lengths, shattering the Keeneland track record for 1 ¼ miles by five seconds, finishing in 2:00.07.
The race was much like his brilliant wins all year. He took control from the start, edged away each time someone tried to challenge him, then exploded in the stretch, never truly threatened in finishing his career with a flawless tour de force.
In sports, we are too quick to call something the “greatest ever.” It’s become part of our culture. But this is not one of those times where we are overreacting. What we saw on Saturday was a legitimate sports accomplishment we may never see again. It was one of the most dazzling Classic performances in history. It completed one of the greatest runs ever.
What we saw is truly legendary.
With Saturday’s win, he did something no horse has ever done — he took the Triple Crown and the Classic. The feat puts him in the conversation for greatest American-based racehorse ever. He is certainly the greatest race horse of this century. (A case can be made for Zenyatta, but Pharoah’s accomplishments dwarf even hers).
Saturday’s race lost a little of its luster when the brilliant filly Beholder scratched earlier in the week. But Pharoah still defeated a Belmont winner (Tonalist), turned the tables on a Travers winner (Keen Ice) and beat one of the most explosive older horses, Met Mile and Woodward winner Honor Code. And it wouldn’t have mattered if Beholder had run. She wasn’t going to get anywhere near him. On this day, no one was.
Now that it’s over, it’s time to examine his legacy. What we saw from this horse was truly historic.
His race record compares favorably with some of the all time greats. He finished his career with nine wins and one second in 11 starts. He did not race as much as some of the other all-timers, but the business has become so breeding oriented, horses simply don’t. Secretariat ran 21 times in his life. Man O’War ran 20 times. But they often faced miniscule fields.
In his career, Secretariat won 16 of 21 races with three seconds, one third and one off the board finish in his first start. He then finished first in his next 10 races, but was disqualified to second in one of them. He lost his prep for the Kentucky Derby before turning in the most amazing Triple Crown in history, with track records at all three surfaces. After the Triple Crown, he won three races and finished second in two others. He won just one Grade I after the Triple Crown. One of his wins was against three other horses; the two losses came in fields with just four opponents. Only five of his starts — two in the Triple Crown — were outside of New York.
American Pharoah’s career started off much the same as Secretariat’s. He was dull in his first race and finished fifth. He then went on to win his next eight starts, seven of them Grade Is, the toughest competition available. That included the Triple Crown. He won two Grade Is in three starts after the Triple Crown, finishing second in the Grade I Travers. The fewest opponents he faced in any race in his career was six in the Rebel and the Haskell.
Realistically, it’s hard to compare eras. Man O’War ran in a time (just after World War I) where he simply did not have very many opponents and when there was no starting gate. He won 20 of his 21 starts, but six of those races he faced only one horse. In four he faced two. Twice he faced just three horses. His brilliance is undeniable, and his margins of victory were legendary. But it is simply impossible to compare a horse who ran in the World War I era. He raced almost exclusively in New York. He did not win the Triple Crown because his owner did not like racing in Kentucky so he skipped the Derby. He once won a race by 100 lengths, but in several of those races an inferior opponent was entered simply so he could run.
Zenyatta has been the best horse of this century. She was an amazing 20 of 21 in her career, but beat colts only once, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on her home track. Her margins of victory were never quite what the all-time greats were, simply because of her come from behind running style. She was amazing, but she raced outside of California just three times, including her only loss at Churchill Downs in the Classic in her final start. She won 13 Grade Is, but 12 of those were against females, and she never faced the other great filly of her era, the brilliant Rachel Alexandra, who had multiple wins against colts.
Citation raced an amazing 45 times, won 16 in a row at one point, and also won the Triple Crown. Horses ran much more often then, but many of his races, like Man O’War’s, were match races against inferior foes, which is not all that different from a modern day workout. So, again, it is difficult to compare.
With that in mind, in the modern era — heck, in any era — it’s hard to find a more impressive resume than American Pharoah. The horse he was most compared to was Seattle Slew. The speedy Slew was the only Triple Crown winner to enter the Crown unbeaten and finish that way. He finished his career with 14 wins in just 17 starts. He finished second twice and off the board just once — in his first start after the Triple Crown. He won eight Grade Is, just one after his Triple Crown win.
There is no apples to apples way to compare Pharoah even to fellow Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Seattle Slew, both horses whose careers ended at 3. But Pharoah matches up with them very well.
The new era of racing started with the Breeders’ Cup in 1984, when horse racing essentially created an end of year championship.
In that era, he stands alone, ahead of a group that includes Cigar, Curlin and Tiznow in addition to Zenyatta.
All had impressive resumes; all won the Classic at least once. But none accomplished one of the toughest feats in sports, then followed it up by adding the Classic. And the quality of horses Pharoah beat was arguably as good or better than those horses faced. Many of the 3-year-olds he beat this year will go on to be even better next year.
American Pharoah was dominating in all of his wins. Other than the Travers and the Derby, he ran brilliantly every single time. And he still won the Derby and barely lost the Travers. He was champion 2-year-old, and will be champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year.
The Classic is America’s richest race, and brings together the best horses from all over the country. Secretariat and Seattle Slew never had the opportunity to face that challenge. They did face outstanding competition, but the game has changed so much since then, that it’s hard to know how they would have fared. Classic winners have to face the best of the best, including many of the best runners from Europe. It is even tougher to win than the Kentucky Derby.
One other area where Pharoah has an edge: He won Grade Is in California, Arkansas, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Air travel has changed the game, but he also crossed the country several times from his California base. He took his game wherever he went and his connections never simply sent him to easy spots or kept him home to have an advantage. He raced over the same surface just twice in his career, his first two starts at Del Mar and two of his Derby preps at Oaklawn Park. Trainer Bob Baffert went after the toughest competition and he beat them.
True greatness — true legends — are defined by achievement. American Pharoah did not almost make history. He went out and did something no horse has ever done and did it emphatically. It’s an achievement that should be appreciated and celebrated.
The greatest ever? Impossible to say. But his accomplishments put him in the conversation. With Saturday’s win, he earned that right. Only 12 horses have ever won the Triple Crown. and American Pharoah is one of them; the only one in the Breeders’ Cup era. Saturday he ran one of the most impressive races ever, ending his career in dazzling, emotional fashion, a perfect way to end a legendary career.
He is the horse of the year. The horse of the decade. The horse of the 21st century.
And one of the greatest race horses of all time. Perhaps even the greatest.