Even though the race is more than three months down the road, American Pharoah is already the 5-2 favorite to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Those are his odds at the Wynn in Las Vegas.
An initial glance at the Triple Crown winner's Classic odds might cause a brain freeze. But after a moment and a thawing, two conclusions emerge: First, the odds reflect the extensive and passionate popularity of American Pharoah; second, they reflect a disturbing dearth of Classic possibilities.
When the Classic Future pool opened in February, American Pharoah sat there rather inconspicuously at 50-1, odds that, for a champion, were more cautionary than anything. He hadn't yet made his seasonal debut and except for a few workouts had hardly been heard from since being scratched because of foot issues out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. So for most horseplayers, even those that play Futures as some sort of whimsical indulgence, 50-1 looked like an overcooked mutton chop. But, of course, now those odds are looking banana-split sweet.
In March at Oaklawn Park, American Pharoah returned with a romp in the Rebel Stakes, and his Classic odds have dropped steadily ever since. And so after this year's five victories, including three jewels, by 27.75 total lengths, he's the overwhelming Classic favorite.
He has been the focus of "quite of bit of action" in the Classic Future bet, according to John Avello, the executive director of the Race and Sports Book at the Wynn and the person who sets the odds. Although the Classic Future isn't nearly as popular as the Kentucky Derby Future, Avello said, American Pharoah has sparked considerable interest.
Besides his charisma and popularity, American Pharoah's Classic odds have plummeted so dramatically simply because the alternatives have become so unattractive. Even Nostradamus would have a hard time coming up with another Classic option. California Chrome, the reigning Horse of the Year, is out for the season. Shared Belief, who reigned indisputably as the best horse in the country after winning the Santa Anita Handicap by more than four lengths, has been out since April with a hip fracture. Although he remains on the board for the Classic Future, only a masochist could bet on him.
And a bettor would need a time machine to invest in the Classic potential of either Bayern or Palace Malice. Since winning last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, Bayern has run twice, but has run very little, finishing last in both races, at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park. Palace Malice hasn't returned to winning form either; he looked like the best older horse in America last year, at least on dirt, before being sidelined by injury, but he finished third in his only start this season, in a minor sprint stakes at Belmont.
But the Classic won't be a walkover. In the next three months, some rivals to American Pharoah certainly will emerge. And even Bayern could be one. His two dismal performances this season suggest two interpretations: One, he'll never return to his 2014 form; or, two, he must have the lead to be effective. In his recent losses, after failing to grab an early advantage, he faded.
Although 25-1 in the Classic Future pool, he's the 5-2 favorite in the morning line for Saturday's San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. Will he be able to beat Appealing Tale to the early lead here, and will he return to form? Also among those entered in the San Diego are Hoppertunity (10-1 in the Classic), who ran second in the Gold Cup despite a wide trip, and Catch A Flight (20-1 in the Classic), who won the Californian in May with a performance that suggested he might be able to step up and compete at a Classic level.
And the Whitney Stakes on Aug. 8 at Saratoga will almost certainly produce a couple potential Classic possibilities. It could also provide some answers, partial or conclusive, to several compelling questions. Can Met Mile winner Honor Code (15-1 in the Classic) be as effective around two turns? Will Noble Bird who waits on horses whenever he strikes the front, win another photo, as he did in the Stephen Foster, and put himself in the Classic mix? Will Wicked Strong (20-1 in the Classic), a hard-luck sort who always empties himself into his efforts, find the winner's circle? Will Tonalist (10-1 in the Classic) and John Velazquez become a winning team? Can Lea (20-1 in the Classic) return to the winner's circle after three hard-fought losses? Is Liam's Map (50-1 in the Classic), who has won four consecutive races, really this good?
Frosted (15-1 in the Classic), the Belmont runner-up, appears to be working sharply for his return Aug. 1 in the Jim Dandy. Could he develop into a Classic contender? And Constitution (11-1 in the Classic), who usually has one or two outstanding efforts in him before disappearing, has had two half-mile workouts in preparation for a return. And for those who are skeptical about the quality of American racing in general, there's War Dispatch at 75-1 in the Classic. Third in the French Derby, War Dispatch is owned by Joseph Allen of New York. But the Future bargain might be Effinex, who after winning the Suburban is still at 50-1 in the Classic pool. He's to make his next start Sept. 5 in the Woodward at Saratoga.
The dearth of Classic contenders probably won't be replaced by a plenitude, but some three or four or five legitimate threats will emerge. And even those who were prescient or lucky enough to get 50-1 on American Pharoah in February should welcome, if they're truly fans of the horse, such a development. To build a legacy of greatness, American Pharoah will have to take on and defeat more accomplished and capable horses than those he has been dominating: He'll have to win the Classic.