Egyptian-owned American Pharoah picked as horse of the year
"Everything about his story, and about his year, was fantastic"
American Pharoah left no doubt about who racing's best horse was in 2015.
Neither did the Eclipse Award voters.
The Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup Classic winner won horse of the year and top 3-year-old male honors at Saturday night's Eclipse Awards — both unanimously. He was the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes since 1978, earning nearly $8.3 million last year alone.
"We had a phenomenal year," trainer Bob Baffert said.
American Pharoah and his connections picked up five trophies on racing's biggest award night, with Zayat Stables prevailing in the owner and breeder divisions and Baffert taking the Eclipse as top trainer.
"This is one award I would have never, ever dreamt of winning," an emotional Ahmed Zayat said after picking up the Eclipse breeder trophy. "I've done a lot of things in my life. But with all seriousness and humbleness, this is not an award I have expected to win."
He was ebullient when getting the owner Eclipse later in the program.
"This is the one I really wanted," Zayat said.
American Pharoah's year wasn't flawless: He was beaten in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August by Keen Ice, one of only two losses he would endure out of the 11 he would run in his career before being retired to stud.
Voters from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and the National Turf Writers And Broadcasters weren't swayed. Or if they were, the way he finished his year changed their minds.
American Pharoah's romp in the Breeders' Cup Classic was an emphatic end to his "Grand Slam," and the only question going into Saturday night was whether he'd be a unanimous winner. And he was, the pick on all 261 ballots in both divisions.
"I keep saying it," Baffert said. "There was something special about American Pharoah."
The only division where Pharoah's team was beaten Saturday was in the jockey race, where Victor Espinoza finished second well behind Javier Castellano. It was Castellano's third consecutive Eclipse, something only two other jockeys have managed — Jerry Bailey did it twice (one of his runs being four successive awards), and Ramon Dominguez won the previous three before Castellano supplanted him in 2013.
Other winners announced Saturday night included Nyquist (2-year-old male), Songbird (2-year-old filly), Stellar Wind (3-year-old filly), Honor Code (older dirt male), Beholder (older dirt female), Runhappy (male sprinter), La Verdad (female sprinter), Big Blue Kitten (male turf horse), Tepin (female turf horse), Dawalan (steeplechase) and Tyler Gaffalione (apprentice jockey).
But the night, and the year, belonged to American Pharoah and his team.
"I thought they handled everything with grace under pressure, from start to finish," said owner and breeder Kenneth Ramsey, who along with his wife Sarah had swept those Eclipse categories in 2013 and 2014 — but were distant seconds to Zayat Stables in both of those divisions in the voting for 2015.
Baffert's Eclipse Award was his fourth, being added to ones from 1997, 1998 and 1999. He's the fifth trainer to win the Eclipse at least four times, joining seven-time winner Todd Pletcher, five-time recipient Bobby Frankel and four-timers Laz Barrera and D. Wayne Lukas.
Baffert said he didn't think he would ever win another Eclipse, and actually dropped the trophy — it didn't break — before congratulating the other finalists, Pletcher and Chad Brown.
"You guys were looking really strong, had a great year," Baffert said. "Until June 6."
That was the day American Pharoah won the Belmont, and punched his ticket to racing immortality.
And to think there was some concern when 2015 started as to whether American Pharoah could run at all, a deep bruise that kept him from the 2014 Breeders' Cup threatening his potential availability for the Triple Crown. Last year's juvenile Eclipse winner dodged another bullet in a prep race before going to Kentucky, racing with a bent shoe and somehow not only winning but escaping without injury.
"Everything about his story, and about his year, was fantastic," Baffert said.
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