LEXINGTON, Ky. - The heroic horse, his ears pricked, surveyed the circle of admirers on an overcast morning on Keeneland's muddy backstretch. The day after American Pharoah climaxed a glorious career with a 6 1/2-length triumph in the Breeders' Cup Classic, about 200 Pharoahites came to say goodbye.
A middle-aged woman fed the 3-year-old colt his favorite treat, a bite-size carrot, as trainer Bob Baffert held his shank. Dozens snapped photos as Baffert walked Pharoah around for one last up close and personal moment with adoring fans. Some reached out to pet his head while others closed in from behind, which is asking for serious trouble from most thoroughbreds.
More horse racing
"Move back!" a stressed security guard yelled. "Move back or we'll take him inside."
But instead of lashing out with a hind leg, Pharoah calmly dealt with the crush.
"He's gentle, he likes people and he loves all the attention," Baffert said. "I couldn't have done this with any other horse. If it had been War Emblem, people would have been going to the hospital with broken ribs."
Baffert was referencing the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who was his third colt to fall short in the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah not only became the first to sweep the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, he also dominated Saturday's $5-million Classic for an unprecedented Grand Slam.
Seven minutes after emerging from Barn 62, the four-legged idol was led back inside. A metal partition closed sideways, and Pharoah was gone for good. A few women sobbed as if distraught over the death of a relative. Other fans stared into cellphones to view their last shots of a horse who became a mainstream obsession. A man said: "Thank you so much, Mr. Baffert. This means the world to everyone."
And so ended the historic Pharoah tour, a 7 1/2-month odyssey through seven racetracks in six states in which America's Horse logged more than 21,000 air miles. He performed brilliantly in all eight of his races, even in his one defeat, a second-place finish by three-quarters of a length Aug. 29 in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
"You'll never see a horse travel like that to so many tracks and win at all but one," Baffert said, still finding it hard to comprehend his horse of a lifetime's relentless excellence. "I've had some horses who were as fast as him, but they just couldn't sustain it."
American Pharoah retires with nine wins, all in graded stakes, in 11 starts, and earnings of more than $8.65 million for owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat. Monday morning, he will take a 15-minute van ride to his new home, Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky, where he will begin his stallion career next year.
"I don't feel like I'm leaving him," Baffert said. "I'll be coming to see him. I think it's going to be toughest when I go home to Santa Anita and see that empty stall.
"I'm thinking about buying a broodmare. I want to own a Pharoah."