Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Then again, let’s.
The Breeders’ Cup is just more than four months away, and if Triple Crown winner American Pharoah shows up for the $5 million Classic as planned, the race could turn into one of the biggest celebrations in the sport’s history.
Mark the date: Saturday, Oct. 31; and the place: Keeneland Racecourse, Lexington, Kentucky.
“I’m sitting here, knocking wood,” Breeders’ Cup President Craig Fravel said Thursday. “A lot of us in the industry are enjoying the triumph right now. Our first thought is let’s keep our fingers crossed, and that he’s in good form coming into the Classic.”
American Pharoah’s next start since winning the Belmont Stakes on June 6 has yet to be decided, although trainer Bob Baffert has been clear that the Classic would be the colt’s final race before he’s retired to Ashford Stud, about 15 miles down the road from Keeneland.
The 3-year-old bay colt became the first horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years, joining an exclusive 12-member club that includes Secretariat, Citation, Whirlaway and Affirmed. Since the Breeders’ Cup didn’t begin until 1984, it would be a first for racing’s championships — now a two-day, 12-race affair — to host a Triple Crown winner.
It wasn’t long after American Pharoah blew away the field in the Belmont that the Breeders’ Cup began touting his try for a “Grand Slam’” in the Classic. And why not? It’s a term sports fans know well, from baseball to golf to tennis.
“It popped into our heads right after (the Belmont),” Fravel said. “We haven’t had a Triple Crown, so it’s not like we were waiting 10 years to whip out the term.”
The Classic is North America’s richest race, and usually draws the top horses in training, 3-years-old and up. Last year, Bayern gave Baffert his first win in the Classic.
This year’s field could be a doozy, especially if 2014 Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome returns to form and makes the race. In his Triple attempt, he finished fourth in the Belmont and then ran third in the Classic.
Among others under Classic consideration are 3-year-olds Firing Line, Dortmund, Frosted and Carpe Diem; and older horses Commissioner, Lea and Moreno.
Firing Line was second in the Derby and seventh in the Preakness, while Dortmund — also trained by Baffert — was 6-0 before running third in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness.
History does not bode well for Derby winners in the Classic. The last to win was Unbridled in 1990, with the current run at 0 for 13 — including three who ran in the Classic twice, Unbridled (1991), Strike the Gold (1991, 1992) and Funny Cide (2003, 2004).
The field for the 1 1/4-mile Classic is limited to 14 starters. Noble Bird has already qualified for a spot with his recent win in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. Another “win and you’re in’” race is Saturday’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
For now, American Pharoah is back in Baffert’s barn at Santa Anita. After the seventh race on Gold Cup day, he’s scheduled to make a public appearance and be paraded for the crowd. He’s then scheduled to resume training, with his next start still unclear.
It appears the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 2 in New Jersey is the favorite. Others under consideration include the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Aug. 1 in upstate New York, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22 in California and the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29.
When the Breeders’ Cup decided to bring its event to historic Keeneland for the first time, Fravel said the reasoning was to celebrate the horse from birth to the breeding shed. And so it seems fitting that American Pharoah’s father, Pioneerof the Nile, is a leading sire at WinStar Farm in nearby Versailles, Kentucky, and the Triple Crown winner will stand at stud on a farm near the track.
“It fits right in with the theme,” Fravel said.