When American Pharoah steps into the starting gate at Keeneland Saturday, he will make history as the first Triple Crown winner to ever race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The next two minutes will determine how far he can extend his achievement.
In the last race of his career, American Pharoah will try to become the first horse to win the American Grand Slam – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Some observers have downplayed the magnitude of the feat, saying that it wouldn’t be all that impressive since he’s the only horse who has ever had a chance to do it.
That’s not true, though. Every horse that has started the Kentucky Derby since 1984 has had the chance to do it – the difference is that American Pharoah is the only one that has gotten this far. Granted, the Grand Slam wasn’t available to Triple Crown winners like Citation, Affirmed, Secretariat and Seattle Slew, but a win on Saturday will still cement his place in history.
The big question, of course, is if he will do it at all. While he was brilliant in the first half of the year, then returned in August for a win in the Haskell Invitational, he was beaten by Keen Ice later that month in the Travers Stakes. He then went back to California to train for the Breeders’ Cup instead of racing one more time – the original plan.
On Saturday, he’ll be facing the same two horses that teamed up to beat him in the Travers. Frosted pushed him hard for the entire race, not letting him get the easy leads that he had gotten in the Triple Crown races, and although American Pharoah fought him off in the stretch, it wore both horses out to the point that Keen Ice was able to swoop in and pull off the 16-1 upset.
Like American Pharoah, Keen Ice hasn’t raced since the Travers, but Frosted came back in September to win the Pennsylvania Derby. However, he did that by returning to his usual running style – hanging back in the pack to win with a late surge. That’s the strategy that he used to win the Wood Memorial in April and to finish second in the Belmont.
So trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and jockey Joel Rosario have a dilemma on their hands. Do they go out fast and try to wear down American Pharoah once again, even though it will probably cost their horse the race? Or do they keep Frosted back in the pack and hope that someone else makes the champion work, allowing them to do what Keen Ice did in the Travers?
The problem is that there isn’t any obvious candidate to go to the front with American Pharoah. Superstar mare Beholder would have been a possibility – she loves to run close to the front and would have been going for a third Breeders’ Cup title, having won the Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Distaff in 2013. She made a huge statement in August, routing males in the Pacific Classic, but was scratched on Thursday when she bled after a workout.
Tonalist is another horse that might have to consider going to the lead against his own style. The 2014 Belmont winner is coming into the Classic off a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second year in a row, but he finished fifth last year at Santa Anita. He’s certainly got the speed to beat American Pharoah, but he hasn’t won a race away from Belmont Park since January 2014.
The other serious contender is Smooth Roller, who is coming off a win over 2014 Classic champ Bayern in the Awesome Again Stakes. He’s only making his fifth career start, and hasn’t beaten anyone of note other than Bayern, who isn’t going to be defending his title. He has shown a bit of early speed, though, so he might get the unwelcome duty of being the rabbit that pushes American Pharoah.
Of course, the Classic is the last of 13 Breeders’ Cup races spread out over two days, and there are other stories to watch, including another chance at history. European superstar Golden Horn will be trying to become the first horse to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders’ Cup Turf in the same year – the two biggest races in world on grass. He’s only lost once in an eight-race career, and is an odds-on favorite to pick up his own trans-Atlantic double.
Untapable will be trying to defend her title in the Distaff against top contenders like Wedding Toast and Sheer Drama, while Esoterique will be trying to beat the boys, including defending champ Karakontie in the Turf Mile.
And, although only one horse has ever won the Juvenile and gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, the champion 2-year-old will be crowned in what shapes up to be a battle between Greenpointcrusader, Brody’s Cause and Nyquist. The last will be a favorite in Detroit, as he is one of several horses in his stable named after Red Wings players.