LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – Hail and farewell, American Pharoah.
The Triple Crown champion won the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths Saturday, taking charge out of the gate in his final race before retirement.
The 3-year-old colt ran 1 1/4 miles in a track-record 2:00.07 as the sentimental 3-5 favorite among the crowd of 50,155 at Keeneland. Fans stood 20-deep all along the rail, cheering and snapping cellphone photos of the superstar horse and jockey Victor Espinoza.
Except American Pharoah didn’t hear them. He wears ear plugs to muffle any sounds that might startle him.
“This was for Pharoah,’’ trainer Bob Baffert said. “We wanted him to go out the champion he is.’’
American Pharoah took on seven rivals after Smooth Roller and champion mare Beholder dropped out. Beholder had the speed and the class to potentially make the race a contest, but a lung ailment sidelined her on Thursday.
It probably didn’t matter how many faced American Pharoah on a cloudy, cool day in the cradle of American horse country.
He smashed the old track record of 2:05.36 by more than five seconds.
“The winner is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen,’’ said Irishman Aidan O’Brien, who trained last-place Gleneagles.
It was a feel-good moment for a sport that has been battered and bruised – all the troubles of declining attendance and drug controversies were wiped away in two magical minutes.
“It’s a horse racing fairy tale and I just happen to be in it,’’ Baffert said.
American Pharoah was moving easily under Espinoza, keeping Effinex a length back in second for the first half-mile. Effinex was never a threat, though, and American Pharoah extended his lead to 3 1/2 lengths turning for home.
“I was trying to open it up as much as I can,’’ Espinoza said. “I saw the wire maybe 20 yards (away), and for me it was not coming fast enough because I want to cross that wire and get it over with.’’
After easing across the finish line, Espinoza took the colt far up the first turn before slowly walking past the grandstand to t he winner’s circle, accompanied by raucous cheers all the way. The champion even had his own military escort walk him back to his barn.