The sport's still coming down from an American Pharoah high. After witnessing one of the greatest campaigns by a 3-year-old in horse racing's modern era, the sport might find it difficult to get excited about what racing remains on the calendar. None of it, I suspect, will affect the championship races. What remains might be intriguing, or to some degree even foreshadowing, but it's essentially going to be a postscript to a sensational 2015 season.
Stephanie's Kitten might have strengthened her argument for a title by going to Del Mar for the Matriarch, but from the Breeders' Cup winner's circle she immediately went to the nearby Keeneland sales ring. Sold privately for $2.8 million to Katsumi Yoshida's Northern Farm, she's headed to Japan. Liam's Map and Honor Code could have settled the argument of who's the champion older male by racing in the Cigar Mile, but they'll never race against each other again, unless it's along a fence line at Lane's End Farm. The day after the Breeders' Cup, they both took up residence at Lane's End, where next year they'll begin their stallion careers.
In the year of the Pharoah, it's probably fitting that the championship season ended with a crescendo when he crossed the finish line in Lexington, Ky. The championship races have been run, and the Breeders' Cup, as it's intended to do, provided sufficient clarity to make the necessary end-of-the-season decisions. In a few divisions, voters will argue and debate, but most of the Eclipse winners are obvious.
Horse of the Year, champion 3-year-old male: American Pharoah, of course, won the golden Eclipse Award the moment he completed his sweep of the Triple Crown. Then he added to his legacy. When he easily drew clear in the Breeders' Cup Classic, transporting not just his own but also the sport's fans to an ecstatic realization that they were part of one of the game's most glorious final chapters, he completed an historic campaign and put himself in the middle of all those all-time-greatness discussions.
American Pharoah won seven of his eight races this year and set a single-season earnings record with nearly $8.3 million. Moreover, of those seven victories, six came in Grade 1 stakes. Although I'm skeptical about the grading of stakes, in this instance, given the historical significance of the races involved, the grades provide a useful metric when comparing American Pharoah to the three Triple Crown winners of the 1970s. Secretariat won four Grade 1 stakes at 3; Seattle Slew and Affirmed each won five.
But Secretariat also won the Marlboro Cup Invitational, which in its inaugural running wasn't graded at all but certainly attracted a Grade 1 field. And in winning a race that was, more than anything, created as a tribute to his popularity, Big Red set a world record (1:45.40) for 1-1/8 miles. (That Marlboro Cup is just one of many races that could be cited to support the argument that stakes should be graded after, not before, they're run.) Secretariat also defeated older horses on the turf, in the Man o' War Stakes and again in the Canadian International.
Seattle Slew, on the other hand, never tried older horses during his Triple Crown season, his campaign coming to a hapless conclusion after the misbegotten journey to California for the Swaps Stakes. Affirmed, who in the Travers was disqualified from a sixth Grade 1 victory, took on his elders twice (running into Seattle Slew and Exceller), but without success.
And so, since the grading of stakes began in 1973, American Pharoah has been the only 3-year-old to put together a campaign comparable to the great Secretariat's. That isn't to suggest their talents are comparable, but their campaigns were.
Holy Bull also won six Grade 1 stakes during his 3-year-old season, but he finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby and passed the Breeders' Cup. Serena's Song won six Grace 1 stakes as a 3-year-old, including a victory over males in the Haskell, but she faded to 16th in the Kentucky Derby. And the great Bold n' Determined won seven Grade 1 events as a 3-year-old; although she defeated older horses, she never took on males.
Some other notable campaigns at 3 belonged to Go For Wand (six Grade 1 wins, Spectacular Bid (five), Sunday Silence (five), Rachel Alexandra (five, with three victories against males) and Point Given (five). To reach back even further, into the 1960s, Buckpasser and Damascus proclaimed their greatness with dazzling campaigns at 3. In 1966, Buckpasser won 12 of 13 starts, beating older horses in the Woodward and the Brooklyn. Although stakes weren't graded then, at least six of those victories came in what could be regarded as Grade 1 events. The next year, Damascus won just about everything but the Kentucky Derby, where he finished third. He won the Travers by 22 lengths and defeated older horses in both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Woodward; seven of his 12 victories came in what could be considered, by modern reckoning, Grade 1 stakes.
The point of all this is that American Pharoah raced headlong through a campaign that was unprecedented. And while doing so, he collected an array of dazzling victories that argue he should be regarded among the best and most accomplished 3-year-olds the sport ever has seen. Even if you go back to Native Dancer and Nashua in the 1950s, you'll find few 3-year-olds that won as many major stakes, and those few didn't sweep the Triple Crown. And the Triple Crown winners of the 1970s weren't as consistently brilliant. The Horse of the Year for 2015 is a great one for all time.
Champion 2-year-old colt: Nyquist. Even the skeptics, of whom I was one, had to be impressed with his winning effort in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The unbeaten colt overcame an outside post position and a wide trip to win for the fifth time in his career.
Champion 2-year-old filly: Songbird. Next to American Pharoah, she gave the most dominating performance of the Breeders' Cup, winning the Juvenile Fillies event by nearly six lengths and completing the 1-1/16 miles in 1:42.73, or more than a full second faster than Nyquist. She's an emerging superstar.
Champion 3-year-old filly: Stellar Wind. This is one of those few divisions where the winner isn't clear. Entering the Breeders' Cup Distaff, in the minds of most voters, I'm A Chatterbox probably led the division, having won the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Cotillion, as well as the Silverbulletday and Fair Grounds Oaks. But she ran poorly at Keeneland, finishing eighth while giving her only poor performance of the year. Stellar Wind also won four stakes, including, most significantly, the Santa Anita Oaks. And she completed her campaign with a strong second in the Distaff, finishing just a neck behind Stopchargingmaria. For me, with their accomplishments comparable, it came down to this: I'm convinced Stellar is more talented. In the Kentucky Oaks, after the sort of nightmarish journey horses never overcome, she still finished fourth. And she overcame a troubled trip to finish second in the Distaff.
Champion older male -- or dirt male, as it's now called in a belated clarification: Honor Code. This is another division where voters are likely to differ. Liam's Map was nothing less than sensational in winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Trapped in traffic for much of the race, he ran down Lea, a formidable horse himself, when finally clear. But Liam's Map simply didn't do enough to win a championship; he won only three races this year. And in their only meeting, the Whitney, Honor Code beat him in a photo. Honor Code also won the Met Mile and the Gulfstream Park Handicap, and then to conclude his career he finished third in the Classic.
Champion older female: Beholder, of course. Although scratched out of the Classic, she had a sensational year, winning all five of her races, including the Pacific Classic. Someday she'll join American Pharoah in the Hall of Fame.
Champion male sprinter: Runhappy. He won it on the racetrack, finishing with five consecutive victories, including a game effort to defeat Private Zone in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Champion female sprinter: La Verdad. Wavell Avenue won the Breeders' Cup, but that was her only stakes victory of the year. The Truth, on the other hand, won six stakes before finishing second at Keeneland.
Champion male turf horse: Big Blue Kitten. The American turf males weren't especially good this year, but Big Blue Kitten won three significant stakes, finished third in the Breeders' Cup and consistently performed well at the highest level of competition.
Champion female turf horse: Tepin. Yes, the diminutive Stephanie's Kitten beat a good field when she took the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. But Tepin defeated some of the best in the world, including males, when she won the Breeders' Cup Mile.
Champion owner, breeder, trainer and jockey: Team Pharoah. American Pharoah had the talent, Ahmed Zayat had the passion, Victor Espinoza had the poise and Bob Baffert had all that and everything else. Horse racing rarely gets lucky. The sport often seems like it's a super-collider for vicissitudes. But it got lucky when American Pharoah was born and again when he landed in Baffert's barn. With unwavering respect for the sport and its fans, and with profound appreciation for the blessing in their midst, Zayat and Baffert guided a great racehorse through one of the greatest campaigns.