American Pharoah wins final race, claiming Breeders’ Cup Classic and Grand Slam

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Triple Crown champion American Pharoah took charge out of the gate, winning the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths Saturday 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.”

He paid $3.40, $3 and $2.40.

Effinex, a 33-1 shot, returned $14.20 and $6.60. Honor Code was another 4 1/2 lengths back in third and paid $3.40 to show.

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.

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.

After easing across the finish line, Espinoza took the colt far up the first turn before slowly walking past the grandstand to the winner’s circle, accompanied by raucous cheers all the way. The champion even had his own military escort walk him back to his barn.

The fans knew they had just witnessed history, the final chapter in a story that may never be repeated.

American Pharoah put an exclamation point on a brilliant career in which he lost just twice – in his debut and again in the Travers on Aug. 29.

Keen Ice, who vanquished him at Saratoga, finished fourth in the Classic. Tonalist, the 2014 Belmont winner, was fifth, followed by Hard Aces, Frosted and Ireland-bred Gleneagles.

Frosted unexpectedly pressed American Pharoah on the lead in the Travers, leaving him vulnerable to the rally by Keen Ice.

This time, no one could keep up with the champ.

“It’s a lot of pressure to train a horse like this because I didn’t want to let the horse down and I didn’t want to let the fans down,” Baffert said. “I’m just so proud of him; it’s like watching my child out there.”

American Pharoah won nine of his 11 career starts, including the first sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years this spring. He earned a total of $8,650,300 for Ahmed Zayat, the Egyptian-born owner who chose to keep his popular horse in training so fans could see him run.

“We wanted him to go out as a winner,” Zayat said. “He is a winner.”

Next up for American Pharoah is a new career as a breeding stallion at a farm in Kentucky bluegrass country near Keeneland.

The colt became the first horse to win the Triple Crown and the Classic in the same year, and the only one to have such a chance since the Breeders’ Cup didn’t begin until 1984.

143rd Kentucky Derby is as wide open as ever

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Bob Baffert is sitting out the Kentucky Derby, and not by choice.

Having the four-time Derby-winning trainer without at least one horse in the race for just the second time in 11 years indicates what an unpredictable winter it’s been leading to the start of the Triple Crown.

Baffert’s best horse, Mastery, got hurt after crossing the finish line first in the San Felipe Stakes. None of his other 3-year-olds developed into Derby material. Instead, he’ll aim for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks for fillies on Derby eve.

This year’s road to the 143rd Derby derailed other contenders because of injuries, including now-retired Not This Time, Klimt and Syndergaard.

“The amazing thing of getting a horse to the Derby is keeping him injury free,” said Doug O’Neill, who trained last year’s winner Nyquist.

For the first time in four years, the winner likely won’t be from California.

“It’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. You’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is,” said Dale Romans, who trains Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. “It could be any horse this race. I don’t think this really means it’s a bad group of horses, I think it’s an even group of horses.”

There’s Classic Empire, who boasts an impressive resume as last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old. He won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, his only two starts this year.

His path to Churchill Downs hasn’t been smooth, however. He had a foot abscess and a back issue that prevented him from working out for a while. Twice in recent months, Classic Empire refused to train.

“I’ve never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I feel that ability wise, he is the most talented horse out there right now.”

Casse also trains State of Honor, the Florida Derby runner-up.

Todd Pletcher has four horses set to run May 6 in the 1 \-mile race, with Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming as his leading contender.

Of course, big numbers are nothing new for the New York-based trainer.

He had five runners in 2013 and 2007. Yet for his 45 career starters, Pletcher has never had a Derby favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming, who had the fastest time among 35 horses going 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on Friday.

“He’s got the right style to be really tough,” O’Neill said.

Pletcher’s lone victory came in 2010 with Super Saver. He is set to surpass mentor D. Wayne Lukas (48) for most career starters.

“Our Derby record is not as good as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve had some horses overachieve on their way to getting there and in some cases, underachieve in the race itself.”

Besides Always Dreaming, Pletcher’s other horses are: Battallion Runner, Patch and Tapwrit. He almost had five again, but Malagacy isn’t expected to run.

There’s Girvin, the Louisiana Derby winner in a race against time to mend a crack in his right front hoof. His 32-year-old trainer Joe Sharp, the husband of retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, is doing everything he can to heal the colt in time to saddle his first Derby starter. Girvin had a similar crack earlier in the year and responded quickly to treatment.

“I’m not saying that I think I’m going to win the Derby, but I definitely wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” Sharp said. “He’s always consistent and he’s got the kind of running style that wins big races.”

As usual, a full field of 20 is expected. The final lineup won’t be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions assigned.

Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is back with Irish War Cry, the Wood Memorial winner. His sire is Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year who finished third in the 2007 Derby.

Still looking for his first Derby win is Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Hence and Untrapped. The trainer has two starters waiting in the wings, too. Lookin At Lee would be the next horse into the race if there are any defections, while Local Hero is No. 24 in the point standings.

Olympic skier Bode Miller recently bought into his first Derby starter, Fast and Accurate, winner of the Spiral Stakes. For years, Miller has been a guest of his pal Baffert during Derby week, but now he’s got some skin in the race.

For the fifth straight year, the field is determined by points from designated prep races. The top 20 earn a spot in the starting gate.

UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow to run in Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow will run in the Kentucky Derby next weekend, giving the Godolphin team a chance to end its 0 for 9 skid in America’s most famous race.

Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said Saturday that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum decided to enter the colt in the May 6 race at Churchill Downs.

The Arabs have been trying to win the Kentucky Derby since 1999. Their best finish was fourth with Frosted in 2015 under American-born trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

Ireland-bred Thunder Snow is sixth on the points list that determines the 20-horse field for the 1 \-mile Derby. His earnings of $1.6 million are the second-highest of any Derby runner.

Thunder Snow won the UAE Derby in March and the UAE 2000 Guineas in February. He was the top 2-year-old in Britain last year, where he ran on turf and won the Group 1 Criterium International.

Bin Suroor says the Kentucky Derby “is a great race and one of the few international contests Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin have yet to win.”