LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When American Pharoah turned into the stretch with a clear and expanding lead, the 50,155 fans at Keeneland knew exactly what was before them, the greatness on display and the great career that was concluding. Caught in the crescendo and intoxicated by the history-making, fans realized that they were sharing a watershed moment, that they were bearing witness to unprecedented accomplishment -- a sweep of the Triple Crown and then a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic. And so on the grandstand apron, as American Pharoah ran by, with a furlong still remaining in the race, fans began high-fiving, waving fists into the air, shouting and screaming. Complete strangers embraced each other. Emotions overflowed in the form of yelps and leaps and tears.
American Pharoah, the 12th Triple Crown winner, won Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic by 6½ lengths in record time (2:00.07 for the 1¼ miles) to end his celebrated career. That was it. He raced 11 times. And so all of the sport's fans, much like the horse's owner, Ahmed Zayat, became very emotional, not just about the win, but about the loss. The sport waited 37 years for such a horse, and suddenly he's gone, like a comet that flashed across the sky and then just as suddenly disappeared.
But given the economics, it could hardly be otherwise. Next year, American Pharoah will begin his stallion career at Coolmore's Ashford Stud, where the fee for a single dalliance could be in the $200,000 neighborhood. Liam's Map, who was both brilliant and courageous in winning Friday's Dirt Mile, also has been retired. He'll stand at Lane's End Farm. And so it goes, the sport buckling beneath a deleterious financial model: American Pharoah and Liam's Map will make more in one year as stallions than they made in their entire racing careers.
But almost as staggering as the numbers is horse racing's capacity for rejuvenation. One of the greatest thrills in this game is trying to find the next superstar, and the sport never disappoints. Stars are always in the sky. And the sport always has a nascent superstar.
About five hours before the emotional conclusion to American Pharoah's career, horses running in the first of the day's Breeders' Cup races converged on the Keeneland paddock. From the moment Songbird strolled into the enclosure, she looked like an animal that had been created in a different workshop from the one that turns out most racehorses. She glistened with perfect balance and athleticism. Her size, powerful hindquarters and unwavering calm all belied her immaturity; the 2-year-old could have passed for an older horse.
A throng surrounded the paddock, and a crowd of connections filled it. It was like the horses were being saddled in a department store. But Songbird hardly seemed to notice. As the 3-5 favorite, she was the focus of considerable attention. But she was indifferent to it, nor did she feel the pressure of the event. Other fillies pranced and danced, their composure tilting. But Songbird strolled calmly around as though she owned the place. And suddenly her flame sucked all the uncertainty out of the air and left only expectation. This must have been what it was like to be in the audience at the Winter Garden Theatre when a 22-year-old Barbra Streisand walked onto the stage as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. It was impossible to be there in the paddock with Songbird and sense her vibe of confident charisma without thinking that just as one of the sport's superstars was about to retire, the next was about to emerge. And here she was.
And then she looked even better when the doors of the starting gate opened in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies event. Songbird jumped to the lead immediately, moved closer to the rail from her outside position, took a one-length advantage into the first turn, extended it to two lengths after three-quarters of a mile, to four lengths in mid-stretch and to nearly six at the wire. Nothing to it.
Her jockey, Mike Smith, only shook the reins at her down the lane, and she completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.73, which was more than a full second faster than Nyquist's winning time later in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. In other words, Songbird is the best 2-year-old in the country, male or female. And it's not even close, not for now anyway. She has matured early and impressively, and some of the males will begin to catch up early next year. Or maybe they won't. Maybe she's that special; maybe she's the sport's next superstar.
When asked about running against the "boys" and aiming her toward next year's Triple Crown, owner Richard Porter said only that it was too early to contemplate such things. For now, she's a champion. And having won her four races by a total of 22 lengths, including three stakes races, she's not only a champion, but special.
Songbird's so special, in fact, she probably has postponed the retirement of her 50-year-old jockey, deferring it for at least another year. The all-time leading Breeders' Cup jockey with 22 victories in the event, Smith told Porter he doesn't intend to retire from riding until Songbird retires from racing.
Early in the week, after American Pharoah had his first gallop at Keeneland, Zayat was already feeling the weight of ambivalence bearing down on him. He had campaigned an extraordinary horse that swept a Triple Crown; even more, he shared his great horse with America, from coast to coast. But it was all within days of concluding, and the owner clearly didn't want it to end. It was as if he were reading a great book and wanted to drag out the final pages. Emotion filling his eyes, Zayat said he'll never have another like American Pharoah, a once-in-a-lifetime horse.
But there will indeed be another Triple Crown winner, even another horse that wins what has become known as the Grand Slam. It might not happen again for 37 years, or it could happen again next season, who knows, but it'll happen. Just as one superstar leaves, a potential superstar emerges. Count on it. It'll happen because the sport has an amazing capacity for rejuvenation. American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, not only understands that but relies upon it. Even more, he expects to contribute to the cycle of rejuvenation.
Yes, he said, he's sorry to see American Pharoah leave his barn, but Baffert said he's relieved, too, that it's over and that it ended successfully, even gloriously. And so after the Classic, after the news conference, after the champagne flowed and after Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, on behalf of all horsemen, toasted the Triple Crown winner's trainer for the outstanding job he had done and for representing the sport so well, Baffert, with a sigh, said, "Now I'm going to go back to work and try to find another one."