LEXINGTON, Ky. >> 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.