CRAWFORD | Happy trails: American Pharoah rides off as a champion
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — Sorry, Grantland. Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, a lone horseman rode one, last time.
Victor Espinoza took American Pharoah straight to the lead in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. He hustled the Triple Crown winner through brisk early fractions. Then he rode him off into the sunset of his career a champion, with a 6 1/2-length victory before a Keeneland crowd of 51,115.
In the facility where they filmed much of the movie “Secretariat,” American Pharoah followed the script to perfection. Actress Kate Upton and rock star Richie Sambora were in the paddock to wish him well before the race.
The Pharoah calmly paced around the spacious Keeneland paddock. At one point, seeing the cameras pointed at him, he stopped and posed. Then, as Baffert watched, I hung back behind, to watch the Triple Crown winner leave the paddock for the race track. The crowd seemed to swallow him up. All I could see was Espinoza, as if riding on air.
“I knew this was going to be his last race and I let him run,” Espinoza said. “On the backside, the path I was in was a little deep, so I decided to move out and he accelerated a little. Turning for home, I knew I was gone. American Pharoah was the best horse I have ever ridden.”
Keeneland holds one of the world’s largest repositories of horse racing history. For this chapter, it won’t have to look far.
The first Triple Crown winner ever to run in a Breeders’ Cup race hallowed the ground with his win. As he crossed the finish line, track announcer Kurt Becker called him, “An everlasting credit to the sport.”
Baffert just wanted to get him home safe, and get him home with a win. He was nervous in the paddock. He chatted with Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari. He got a slap on the back from Sambora. But flanked by his son Bode, Baffert was feeling the weight. After the Belmont win, Baffert said he stopped feeling like he was training for himself, and started feeling like he was training for the sport, and for its fans.
“I was just so worried,” Baffert said. “I just wanted to make sure that this horse ran well. Not only for him, but for all the fans of racing that are watching him. There's an extreme amount of pressure that we have when you have a horse like this, and so I just wanted to make sure that he was doing well.”
When he put the saddle on him, he knew. He told Espinoza, “he’s sharp.” And owner Ahmed Zayat knew.
“He connected with people. He loves people,” Zayat said. “I knew he got it. It's so weird. I know sometimes you look in this industry and some little things just make you be superstitious. Everybody was looking and he literally stopped when he was (in the paddock) and looked at me and my family. And we like start, oh, my God. Like I'm ready, I'm going to get it done. It's just, it was an incredible thrill.”
As he drew away from the field, his connections had different feelings.
Zayat, who never flinched at the idea of risking a priceless thoroughbred by running him after the Triple Crown, all the way through the Breeders’ Cup, didn’t watch the final moments.
“I really did not watch the final eighth,” Zayat said. “I closed my eyes. I see him opening. I know it's done and I got extremely emotional and, you know, that's all.”
Baffert wasn’t where he could hear the roar of the crowd. He stayed in the paddock to watch the race.
“I wish I would have watched him in the front to hear the crowd,” Baffert said. “I didn't get to see the crowd, but I was enjoying that moment with my wife, Jill, and it was just emotional for us, the journey with this horse that we've been on.”
I was 4 1/2 years old when Secretariat won the Triple Crown. I remember him vaguely. I remember Seattle Slew and Affirmed better.
But in my professional life, there has been no horse like him, who seemed to revel in the public attention, who could travel to any track, get off the van and be ready to go to work.
Secretariat, to me, was less flesh and blood than a picture that hung in my dad’s office, a gift from Cawood Ledford, who was given a half-dozen prints from the photographer who shot an iconic head-on photo of Secretariat in the stretch at the Belmont.
American Pharoah, I got to see. I got to pet, the morning after he won the Belmont, a morning when Baffert posed for a picture with many of us who covered his Triple Crown races.
“The thing that makes this horse so special — and first of all, he's so spoiled because he's such a kind horse — but he's got a great mind,” Baffert said. “He's got you've seen the way this horse, he takes his track with him. He ships. He flies. He goes everywhere. There's no excuse. He just goes And he shows up. And that's an incredible individual. I mean, I've had horses that were maybe, on a given day, they were as fast as him, but they had a small window. And his window has been wide open the whole time.”
American Pharoah, criticized after a slow Derby, ran the 1 1/4-miles in a track-record time of 2:00.07.
In the post-race news conference, a couple of unusual things happened. First, D. Wayne Lukas stood up and took one of the press microphones to say something to Baffert.
“Bob, on behalf of every one of us who get up in the morning and train horses, I want to congratulate you, and Victor, on an extraordinary job,” Lukas said. “You were absolutely masterful. You had him trained to the minute. I knew he'd break their hearts at the half-mile pole, and he did it. You had him ready. On behalf of every trainer who gets up and tries to make a living, I want to congratulate you. You've been wonderful.”
You know something special is going on when, during the news conference, they start to roll in bottles of champagne. At the end of it, everyone raised a glass to the winners.
As a group, they toasted a team that was accessible, that shared their champion with the people and the media, that let the nation come on the ride with them.
Now that it has ended, Zayat says he will conceive of a final farewell celebration that is worthy of him — perhaps at Churchill Downs.
We’ll not see him in full stride on a racetrack again. But we were lucky to see him the way we did, for as long as we did.
And we’ll not soon forget.
Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.