Even for a horse that had done so much -- had already wrapped up Horse of the Year, had already reserved his spot in the Hall of Fame -- American Pharoah had something to prove in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic. This was the race that was going to decide what kind of a horse he was: a great horse or an immortal horse. There is a difference.
Winning the Triple Crown alone was not going to be enough to get him into that rarefied company that includes only a few from the modern era, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and maybe one or two others. Had he lost, he would have gone out with two defeats in his last two starts and would never have had the chance to roar through a 4-year-old campaign like Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid did. Had he lost, he still would have been Horse of the Year, still would have made it into the Hall of Fame, but I don't believe anyone would have thought of him as a Mount Rushmore-type horse.
Now, you have to.
It must be noted that everything -- and I mean everything -- fell perfectly into place for American Pharoah in the Classic. The one horse that appeared to have a serious chance of beating him was the terrific mare Beholder, and she was withdrawn earlier in the week after a bleeding problem. Then, the only horse that might have provided him with any pace pressure, Smooth Roller, came out of the race Saturday morning.
The only thing that could have happened did happen. Pharoah was never pressured, galloped around the track loose on the lead and made a $5 million horse race look like a workout. The pace scenario was so soft that Effinex, the second longest shot in the race at 33-1, ran second throughout, with no one able to catch him for the place.
But none of that should take away from what he accomplished -- it's not Pharoah's fault they turned the Breeders' Cup Classic into an exhibition race. He won by 6½ lengths and could not have possibly performed better.
"This is for Pharoah," trainer Bob Baffert said. "We wanted him to go out the champion he is. I'll never have another horse like him."
Absent the chance of having a 4-year-old campaign, American Pharoah needed something to put the exclamation point on the end of the sentence that summed up his career. Otherwise, he would have lagged behind the Secretariats and Seattle Slews of the world when it came to his place in racing history. In the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race that wasn't around when the superstars of the seventies were running, he had a unique opportunity to take his reputation to the next level. Which is exactly what he did. He's the only horse in history to win the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Pretty special stuff.
It's a shame we won't see American Pharoah on the racetrack again, but with the economics of the game making it so much more profitable to breed a great horse than race a great horse, no one can blame owner Ahmed Zayat for retiring his star. So we got the next best thing, an immortal horse going out with a sensational victory on the huge stage that is the Breeders' Cup.
On Saturday, the greatest of the greats welcomed a new, and worthy, member to their club.
CLOSERS: Juvenile Fillies winner Songbird has to be the favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby. Nothing wrong with Juvenile winner Nyquist, but Songbird is the better horse, and she is sensational. She completed the mile-and-a-sixteenth in 1:42.73, more than a second faster than Nyquist. Owner Rick Porter has never been shy about running fillies against boys, and you can bet he already has a case of Derby Fever ... Found's win in the Turf was a win for those who think it's ridiculous how American trainers baby their horses these days. The Turf was the filly's third start in 27 days and she has also had to ship here from Europe. She is based in Ireland for trainer Aidan O'Brien ... Trainer Chad Brown started exactly one horse in a Breeders' Cup dirt race, and that was Wavell Avenue. The filly won the Filly & Mare Sprint, a statement-making victory for a trainer who gets very few opportunities with top dirt horses ... They should have run Liam's Map in the Classic ... No place in America embraces horse racing like Lexington, Kentucky, and no track better represents everything that is right about this sport than Keeneland. The Breeders' Cup can't return there soon enough.