Lexington, Ky. — In a few days, there will be a vacant stall in Bob Baffert’s barn and an empty space in the hearts of the trainer and the owner of American Pharoah.
The 3-year-old colt bids farewell to racing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this weekend, ending a memorable journey that included him winning the sport’s first Triple Crown in 37 years.
No longer will Baffert’s wife, Jill, and owner Ahmed Zayat be checking their smartphones in the wee hours of the morning to see what’s going on via the camera in American Pharoah’s stall. No need to stash his favorite snack of peeled baby carrots in their pockets anymore.
Their gushing, endless discussions about every little shake of the colt’s head or whinny or even him peeing will be just memories.
Baffert will head back to California to try to develop a new 2-year-old colt into the next Kentucky Derby winner. Zayat will return to New Jersey and scan the sales catalog to buy or breed his next American Pharoah.
Except both know there may never be another one like the bay colt who took them on the ride of their lives.
“For us, it’s a horse of a lifetime, once in a lifetime,” Zayat said. “The thing I’m most proud of is he excited all of us, all of his fans, the sport. Forever I’ll be indebted for how he changed all our lives hopefully for the better.”
Baffert said, “I feel fortunate that I’m the one that had him.”
They still have American Pharoah for one more race. He is the early 4-5 favorite Saturday for the $5 million Classic, North America’s richest race. He’s won 8 of 10 career races and earned more than $5.9 million.
As the sport’s 12th Triple Crown champion, his breeding rights will fetch still undetermined big bucks.
Before American Pharoah boards a van headed for his future home at Coolmore Stud in nearby Versailles, Baffert will saddle him and give jockey Victor Espinoza a leg up one last time.
Baffert watched the colt’s 51/2-length victory in the Belmont Stakes that clinched the Triple Crown as a fan. This time, the feeling will be different when he looks on from the stands at bucolic Keeneland.
“I watch this like I’m his father,” Baffert said. “I send my kid out there and I want him to do well. I don’t want him to drop the pass in the end zone. I’ll be nervous.”
Ever a bundle of nerves, enthusiasm and lots of words, the Egyptian-born Zayat wanted to win the Kentucky Derby for himself and his family. He wanted to win the Triple Crown for the fans and to give a boost to a flagging industry. He wants to be in the winner’s circle again, this time for the horse.
“I want him to win an unbelievable race for Pharoah,” he said, “to go out in a way that we always remember him as a brilliant, kind horse.”
As much as an 1,195-pound horse can be a family pet, American Pharoah fills the bill.
Thoroughbreds by nature are high-strung and often ornery. Not this guy. His easy-going temperament has allowed Baffert to open his barn to friends and strangers alike, with kids proffering carrots and American Pharoah patiently posing for photographs.
“You’ve seen the best of people,” Zayat said. “Everybody shared the love for the horse.”
His human handlers have gathered for one last go-round. Baffert’s wife and young son, Bode, along with the Zayat family will join Baffert’s barn staff, including assistant Jimmy Barnes, the colt’s exercise rider, groom and hotwalker to watch him run like the wind again.
“It’s sad because it’s not going to be ours anymore,” Baffert said. “I always joke that we’re going to need group therapy.”
Zayat is so reluctant to say goodbye that he hasn’t made plans for his flight home yet.
“I said, let’s not talk about it until we have to,” he said. “We’re going to soak it, enjoy it, bottle it.”
American Pharoah is coming off his only loss this year to Keen Ice in the Travers two months ago. He faces a formidable field in the Classic, including Keen Ice, stellar mare Beholder, who owns a six-race winning streak, and 2014 Belmont winner Tonalist.
Zayat can’t fathom that the champ might end his career with a two-race skid.
“I want American Pharoah to do what he does best, which is to win and win with command,” he said.
Baffert’s ideal scenario for the 11/4-mile Classic is simple: let American Pharoah be in good enough position when the 10-horse field turns for home to give his fans something to root for.
“It takes a brilliant, special horse to stand up in the Classic,” he said. “This should be pay-per-view.”
What: Season-ending championships for Thoroughbreds (Grade 1)
Where: Keeneland, Lexington, Ky.
TV:NBCSN — 3-6 p.m. Friday, 1-4 p.m. Saturday; NBC — 4-6 p.m. Saturday
The races: Friday — 3:30 p.m., $1M Juvenile Turf (1 mile); 4:10, $1M Dirt Mile; 4:50, $1M Juvenile Fillies Turf (1 mile); 5:35, $2M Distaff (11/8 miles). Saturday — 12:05, $2M Juvenile Fillies (1 1/16 miles); 12:45, $1M Turf Sprint (51/2 furlongs); 1:25, $1 Filly & Mare Sprint (7 furlongs); 2:10, $2M Filly & Mare Turf (13/16 miles); 2:50, $1.5M Sprint (6 furlongs); 3:30, $2M Mile; 4:10, $2M Juvenile (11/16 miles); 4:50, $3M Turf (11/2 miles); 5:35, $5M Classic (11/4 miles)
2014 Classic winner: Bayern