Now, there is no debate. The questions have been asked and answered. With American Pharoah's dominant Breeders' Cup Classic win, you can no longer deny that he is a legendary horse whose name belongs alongside the all-time greats.
He ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in the Belmont Stakes, winning his seventh race in a row, and by a combined 35 3/4 lengths, but the questions remained whether American Pharoah could be mentioned in the same breath as fellow Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed as an all-time great.
After all, he won the Kentucky Derby with a Beyer Speed Figure of 105, which was bested by 17 Derby winners since 1990. There was talk about him beating up on a subpar crop of three-year-olds, and the fact he had things pretty easy up front in the slop in the Preakness Stakes and in his gate-to-wire score in the Belmont Stakes.
Among the Triple Crown winners, he was generally ranked in the middle of the pack of the dozen, sixth by Gary West of ESPN.com and Rick Snider of The Washington Post.
Shortly after Triple Crown, Snider remarked, “American Pharoah is considered a blend of Seattle Slew’s toughness and Affirmed’s confidence. If he wins his remaining starts, American Pharoah could finish ahead of both of those horses, as well as Count Fleet, to finish behind only Secretariat and Citation among the immortals.”
After a snazzy performance on the Jersey Shore, winning the Haskell Invitational, he then suffered his first defeat since his debut when he was second in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, coming back just four weeks after his big Haskell score.
In the two months leading up to the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, there was talk about how he would be able to handle top older horses like Tonalist, Honor Code and the brilliant mare Beholder.
The colt got several breaks leading into the Classic. First, Beholder came down ill and had to scratch, as did the speedy Smooth Roller. The very quick Liam’s Map would have given the Triple Crown winner a tussle early in the Classic, but his connections elected to send him to the Breeders’ Cup Las Vegas Dirt Mile, which he won with ease despite a difficult trip.
All three of those foes had earned higher Beyers than American Pharoah’s best figure, which was a 109 in his Haskell score. While those three were out, both Tonalist and Honor Code had earned previous Beyers that were higher and looked like legit threats.
Despite being the 4-5 morning line favorite for the Classic, perhaps he was not even the best horse on the track on Saturday afternoon, let alone an all-time great.
As expected, American Pharoah was able to get the early lead, setting legitimate fractions of 23.99 for two furlongs and 47.50 for a half-mile.
Long shot Effinex was chasing, as was 2014 Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist, and it seemed just a matter of time before we were going to hear from the late running Honor Code, who was lagging at the back of the pack.
American Pharoah disposed of Effinex, Tonalist started to back up, and the Triple Crown winner began to extend his lead under a hand ride from jockey Victor Espinoza.
They distanced themselves from the rest of the field and drew away to win by 6 1/2 lengths, with Espinoza easing up late and posing for the camera as they crossed the wire.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has trained many good horses, including three other Kentucky Derby winners. “The people came to see this and they got it; it's very rare,” Baffert told the NBC television audience from the winner’s circle. “This was for Pharoah. I wanted him to go out as the champion he is. I’ll never have another horse like him.”
In just a flash longer than two minutes the colt showed the world that indeed he was an all-time great, adding the Classic to his victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, winning the Grand Slam of racing. The Grand Slam had never been attempted since the Breeders’ Cup has only been around since 1984, six years after Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978.
American Pharoah will head to the breeding shed having won nine of his 11 career starts with earnings of $8.65 million, per Equibase.com.
While he could never look through the same bridle as the great Secretariat, the colt proved Saturday in electrifying fashion that he belongs with the all-time greats.
The description of the strapping colt by track announcer Larry Collmus summed up what everyone at Keeneland Racecourse and watching on television was thinking when he exclaimed, “American Pharoah, a horse of a lifetime!”
Follow Michael Dempsey on Twitter @turfnsport