In a racing world that for some drips in riches, nothing can beat the pursuit and sensation of winning two famous races, one on either side of the Atlantic.
That was the only conclusion to come from comments by trainer Bob Baffert and owner/breeder Anthony Oppenheimer following the Longines World's Best Racehorse award Jan. 19 at Claridges in London.
The pair were referring to the Derby, one held in Kentucky, the other at Epsom, and boasting between them 375 years of breed-defining history. Breeders' Cups and World Cups, and even the 95-years young Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I), have a long wait for such venerable respect.
Baffert was speaking after 'his' horse—American Pharoah, owned and bred by Ahmed Zayat—had beaten Oppenheimer's to the Longines-sponsored award for the highest-rated horse on the planet.
America's first Triple Crown winner for 37 years gained an end-of-year rating of 134 from an international panel of handicappers, putting him four points clear of Golden Horn, and eight ahead of the joint-third, French mare Treve and the late, lamented, Shared Belief.
Asked if he had accomplished all there was to achieve in the sport, Baffert did not ponder when saying: "The future of American racing is the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). We all need some kind of motivation, and the Kentucky Derby motivates me. It keeps me getting up in the morning. It's a wonderful race to win."
In similar vein, Oppenheimer was unequivocal when asked which of Golden Horn's seven victories—of which four were group Is—was the highlight, saying: "The Derby. The great thing about the Derby is you can only win it once—you can win the Arc, which is a marvelous race, at any age, and you can go back if you fail, but you get one chance at the Derby. It's the most prestigious race."
In his acceptance of Longines' runner-up award, Oppenheimer said of Golden Horn: "He's enjoying his retirement at Dalham Hall (Darley's Newmarket stud farm) and is in a lovely big box, even bigger than that of Dubawi, who's earning a bit more than him at the moment."
Summing up American Pharoah's merits, Baffert, who along with Zayat and jockey Victor Espinoza was given a commemorative Longines watch, said: "He brought a lot of fans back into the sport—he showed the beauty of racing."
One dream accomplished, another begins, not quite at the bottom, but certainly far from the top peg. Will he make it as a stallion? Baffert said: "You never know which bloodlines are going to enable you to win the big races, but we hope American Pharoah is going to give us future Derby winners."
Baffert, who was in London with his wife, Jill, and son, Bode, could train a second Triple Crown winner, but the odds of Zayat owning another are shorter than the life of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Said Zayat: "American Pharoah was the horse of a lifetime—not only was he brilliant on the racetrack, but he connected with everyone in America. He brought back hope—for 37 years we waited for a horse like that, and he was the one. He was not only majestic and brilliant, but he actually liked winning the way he did.
"He loved people, and the persona of this special athlete was beyond the norm. He was cuddly, loving, and friendly, whether with a toddler or an older gentleman."
The tearful reminiscences of Janet Rome—whose husband Jim was a part-owner in U.S. champion Shared Belief—struck a chord around Claridges.
Shared Belief, who won 10 of 12 races, died Dec. 3 after colic surgery, and Rome said: "Thank you for honoring and celebrating the life of Shared Belief at this truly special event. All our equine athletes are very special to us, but he was a champion who was larger than life. He made us think anything was possible. We are all heartbroken to lose this amazing horse, and most of all sad that Shared Belief will not enjoy the long life he so deserved."
A new award, that of World's Best Horse Race, based on the ratings of top-four finishers, went to France's Qatar-sponsored Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Won in 2015 by Golden Horn, it is held on the first Sunday in October, but in 2016 at Chantilly—home of the Prix du Jockey-Club (Fr-I, French Derby)—while major reconstruction takes place at Longchamp.