Rick Samuels

The American Pharoah Story

Triple Crown hopes rode on the back of a mild-mannered colt and his veteran team

June 4, 2015 • Updated June 9, 2015 • Text by Claire Novak

American Pharoah galloped straight into the hearts of racing fans everywhere with his hard-fought triumph in the May 2 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and a follow-up romp through the slop in the May 16 Xpressbet.com Preakness Stakes (gr. I), but there was nothing like the roar of the crowd June 6 as he cruised to a 5½-length victory in the Belmont Stakes Presented by DraftKings (gr. I). The first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed swept the legendary series in 1978, Zayat Stables’ brilliant homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile gave Victor Espinoza hard-won success in the jockey’s third attempt at the Triple Crown, and finally brought the rare old trophy to Hall of Fame horseman Bob Baffert in the trainer’s fourth try. American Pharoah now rides a seven-race win streak, those victories garnered by a combined 35¾ lengths, and by taking the Triple Crown has claimed his place as the sport’s long-awaited superstar. This is his story.

Conceived at WinStar Farm near Versailles, Ky., American Pharoah is the son of a proven competitor. His sire, the Empire Maker runner Pioneerof the Nile, finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby in a campaign for Baffert and the Zayats that included victories in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I), Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II), San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). American Pharoah is his first grade I winner.

Louise Reinagel

Littleprincessemma, a daughter of Yankee Gentleman who was retired due to an injury after two starts for the Zayats, produced the Kentucky Derby winner as her second foal after delivering the Maimonides ridgling Xixixi in 2011. She has since produced an unnamed yearling filly and a 2015 colt named Irish Pharaoh, both by Pioneerof the Nile.

Kevin Thompson

American Pharoah was foaled Feb. 2, 2012, in this spacious stall at Tom Van Meter’s Stockplace Farm near Lexington. Van Meter (above), a seventh-generation Kentucky horseman and former practicing veterinarian, is well known throughout the Thoroughbred industry for his involvement in the auction scene. The eventual Kentucky Derby winner was among the last crop raised at Stockplace for the Zayats.

Kevin Thompson

Shipped to Vinery near Lexington, the plain bay colt was weaned before he entered the sales prep program at Taylor Made Farm outside Nicholasville, Ky. From January to July 2013, he blossomed into a prime prospect for the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale. “Day one we felt that he had brilliance to him—his demeanor, his aura, his conformation, the way he moved,” Ahmed Zayat said.

Laura Donnell

American Pharoah shipped to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as part of Taylor Made’s consignment, but according to his connections, buyers were dissuaded by a bump on his shin incurred in a paddock accident. When bidding stalled at $300,000, Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin told bloodstock agent David Ingordo to buy the colt back. Racing in their familiar blue and yellow silks, American Pharoah would become Zayat Stable’s first Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner.

Laura Donnell

On March 23, 2014, the talented runner flashed a glimpse of things to come in an early breeze at McKathan Brothers Training Center near Citra, Fla. “When we got him fit, Mr. Zayat came down and he brought his trainers with him,” Kevin McKathan remembered. “When American Pharoah came down the track in his breeze, everyone went silent. He was just amazing.”

Tibor & Judit Photography

Justin Zayat, 23, had an affinity with American Pharoah from the start. As kind in the stall as he is fierce on the racetrack, the colt is “a big teddy bear” who will gently accept carrots and who nuzzles visitors with no trace of a young male racehorse’s typical aggression. Justin participates closely in managing the racing stable with his father. “We’ve found something to bond over; it’s something we’re both interested in,” he said. “In texts and conversations, all day we talk horses.”

Tibor & Judit Photography

Baffert found himself in awe of American Pharoah after the young colt shipped to Southern California and began breezing under his care. “Bob told me, ‘Oh my God, this is something. We’re going to have a lot of fun with this horse,’ ” Ahmed Zayat said. “He believed dearly in him.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

American Pharoah made his first trip to the winner’s circle in the Sept. 3 Del Mar Futurity, taking the grade I event by 4¾ lengths in his second start after running fifth in a Del Mar maiden race in August. That initial start was a learning experience for the colt and for Baffert, who noticed the colt’s angst in the paddock and post parade under Martin Garcia. “After that, my wife Jill looked at me and said, ‘That’s one of your best 2-year-olds? It’s going to be a long summer,’ ” Baffert recalled. “We took the blinkers off, put cotton in his ears, and schooled him a lot.” And the winning streak began.

BENOIT PHOTO

Favored to take the Sept. 27 FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) at odds of 1-2, American Pharoah did just that—going gate to wire by 3¼ lengths under a steady hand ride from his jockey, who has said riding the long-striding runner is like piloting a jet. “All the way he was on a high cruising speed,” Espinoza said. “He has such a long stride. He moves really nice and is light on his feet.”

BENOIT PHOTO

Next stop on American Pharoah’s tour de force was the Breeders’ Cup, but a run in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) was not to be. The colt was confirmed out of the race Oct. 28 after an issue with his left front foot was discovered following a sharp Oct. 27 workout, five furlongs in 1:00 with a gallop-out in 1:12 3/5 under jockey Martin Garcia. The injury proved difficult to diagnose, but the Zayats decided to give American Pharoah the rest of the season to recover. “You have to do right by them so that they do right by you,” Ahmed Zayat said. “Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

Although he missed the season finale, American Pharoah became Zayat Stables’ first Eclipse Award winner and the 11th trained by Baffert when voters named him champion 2-year-old male over Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red at the Jan. 17 Eclipse Awards banquet in South Florida.

Photos by Z

American Pharoah soared back in 2015 at Oaklawn Park, winning the March 14 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) by 6¼ lengths on a sloppy track in spite of stumbling at the start and springing his right front shoe. Despite getting a later start to the season than many of his rivals on the Triple Crown trail, the colt gave his connections the utmost confidence. “Once he got to the first turn and he was just in his groove, galloping, I just thought, ‘Well, if he’s the horse we hope he is, he’s in good shape,’ ” Baffert said. “You’re always hoping that he’s going to run like that. He showed us in the mornings he does that, so it was just a perfect kind of race for him to come back.”

Coady Photography

The April 11 Arkansas Derby (gr. I) solidified American Pharoah’s status as the likely favorite for the Kentucky Derby. Rated for the first time in his career and making his first try at the 1 1/8-mile distance, he sat just off a longshot’s pace before reeling in the overmatched front-runner and drawing away to an eight-length win. “I know that he is a very talented and very fast horse, but today he showed us a different dimension,” Ahmed Zayat said. “This horse can do anything. He’s brilliant.”

Coady Photography

Shipping to Churchill Downs under the care of Baffert’s head assistant, Jimmy Barnes, American Pharoah arrived at the Louisville oval April 13. “He’s a good traveler,” Barnes said. “The reason we came here so early is that we were already halfway here. You don’t want to go back to California and then come back to Churchill.”

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

Jorge Alvarez is American Pharoah’s companion through morning gallops. A native of Tijuana, Mexico, Alvarez won close to 400 races as a jockey in his native country before he grew too big and became an exercise rider like his father. He began working for Baffert in 2009 after stints with trainers Mike Mitchell and Bobby Frankel, and had been the morning rider for both Pioneerof the Nile and Empire Maker.

Rick Samuels

American Pharoah and Alvarez drew quite a following in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby, as members of the media and racing fans congregated around Baffert’s Barn 33 on the Churchill Downs backside to catch a glimpse of the champ.

Skip Dickstein

The bay colt had only one work between the Arkansas Derby and the Run for the Roses, clocking five furlongs in :58 2/5 under Martin Garcia on April 26 at about 8:30 a.m. EDT. His move was the fastest of 32 at the distance on the day. Baffert flew in from California to supervise the breeze, and declared, “He’s right where we want him to be.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

American Pharoah drew post 18 for the Derby, from which only one horse—Gato Del Sol in 1982—had won since the starting gate began to be used in 1930. Due to scratches of El Kabeir and International Star from the Derby field, American Pharoah left from the 17 hole. That starting stall had an even worse record; American Pharoah became the very first Derby winner to leave from that position.

USA TODAY

Finally, Thoroughbred racing’s biggest moment had arrived. American Pharoah had given his connections some concern in the walkover; in response to the large crowd, he became heated and was on his toes despite the cotton ear plugs. He broke well, however, as the Kentucky Derby field was sent on its way.

Chad B. Harmon

American Pharoah got the perfect stalking trip, third behind pacesetting stablemate Dortmund (inside) and fellow California-based rival Firing Line (center) while traveling five wide before making his move. With a quarter-mile to go (outside, blue and yellow silks), he was drawing on even terms with his front-running rivals.

Skip Dickstein

Edging clear after a prolonged drive, American Pharoah won Kentucky Derby 141 by a length over Firing Line (inside), with Dortmund third and the late-closing Frosted running on well for fourth. The final time for the 1¼-mile test was 2:03.02.

Skip Dickstein

After almost tasting victory with runners-up Nehro, Pioneerof the Nile, and Bodemeister, the Zayats finally had their Kentucky Derby winner. “Tears of joy,” Ahmed Zayat said. “It was like a euphoria of emotions. (Before) I came with good horses, but today I came with a star.” Once the family reached the winner’s circle, the celebration was on as Espinoza—just the seventh jockey to land a trio of Derby triumphs, and the sixth to win back-to-back editions of the Derby—sprayed Ahmed Zayat with champagne.

Skip Dickstein

While the first Derby winner for his owners, the colt was Baffert’s fourth, along with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002). All three would go on to win the Preakness with a shot at the Triple Crown, only to be vanquished in the Belmont. American Pharoah’s win was especially meaningful for Baffert’s 10-year-old son, Bode, who in 2012 watched Bodemeister, the colt named after him, run second to I’ll Have Another.

Skip Dickstein

The morning after the Derby, Baffert held court outside his barn. He was at ease in the spotlight, and his horse came out of the race well. Derby fourth-place finisher Frosted and others such as Materiality (sixth in the Derby), Keen Ice (seventh), Mubtaahij (eighth), Carpe Diem (10th), and Frammento (11th) would bypass the Preakness with eyes on Belmont bids. But for the Derby top three, Danzig Moon (fifth), and Mr. Z (13th), it was time to head down the road to the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Rick Samuels

American Pharoah arrived at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md., on the afternoon of May 13 after shipping from Louisville on a Tex Sutton charter along with Dortmund and others. The colt did not bed down in the traditional Stall 40 reserved in the Preakness Stakes Barn for the Kentucky Derby winner, a spot near the end of the shedrow. Instead, he was stabled a few stalls down for additional peace and quiet, while Smokey the pony slept in the place of honor.

Skip Dickstein

Throughout Baffert’s career he has left no doubt over his disdain for post 1, citing mishaps such as 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky’s rough trip from the inside gate in the Kentucky Derby—a run in which Lookin At Lucky encountered trouble twice early down on the rail before finishing sixth. A smaller eight-horse field gave a little less cause for concern when American Pharoah was given post 1 at the Preakness draw, however, and although Baffert was far from happy with the assignment, it is worth noting that Triple Crown winners Gallant Fox, War Admiral, and Whirlaway all started from the inside gate in the Preakness.

Skip Dickstein

At least Baffert didn’t have any physical issues to worry about with American Pharoah. The Kentucky Derby winner trained steadily at Pimlico Race Course in the days leading up to the Preakness, dragging Alvarez through his paces and impressing both fans and the media corps with his fluid stride and on-the-muscle attitude. “When you’re working with horses of this caliber, there’s a fine line there,” Baffert said. “(You) try not to do too much. But my horses are very fit, so a race like (the Kentucky Derby) doesn’t knock them back at all, because they’re used to it.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

The sun was shining when American Pharoah began his walkover to the Pimlico paddock on May 16. Groom Eduardo Luna kept a firm hold on the shank while Alvarez assisted on the right side en route to the paddock, where the colt was saddled indoors for the Preakness before crossing over to the turf course to meet Espinoza. A storm was rolling in; dark, ominous clouds looming over the racetrack. Just in time for the post parade, the heavens opened and a windy deluge hit the field.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Baffert dashed for cover, heading back to the indoor paddock to watch the race on TV with Jill and Bode. He could barely catch a glimpse of American Pharoah in the post parade, Espinoza’s back hunched against the torrential rain. Streams of water soaked the track, but the storm abated somewhat as the horses loaded into the gate.

Rick Samuels

American Pharoah relished the slop, heading straight to the lead and never looking back en route to a seven-length tour de force in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness. The closest runner to him at the finish was the Dallas Stewart-trained maiden winner Tale of Verve, followed by Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. III) winner Divining Rod and Dortmund.

Skip Dickstein

Espinoza, who had strongly urged American Pharoah onward to win the Kentucky Derby, never even had to touch his mount with the stick—simply showing him the whip for a few strides before American Pharoah galloped beneath the finish line under a hand ride. Final time was 1:58.46.

Anne M. Eberhardt

America had its newest Triple Crown hopeful in American Pharoah, who resembled a wet seal as he stood in the Preakness winner’s circle with his drenched connections. Later Espinoza would pour water out of his boots when he returned to the jockeys’ room, but as the trophy presentation concluded, the rain stopped and American Pharoah walked back to the test barn under clearing skies.

Chad B. Harmon

Baffert showed his latest superstar to the media the following morning, and although a bit tired, American Pharoah seemed otherwise none the worse for wear. As for Baffert himself, the trainer said he is feeling less stress this year than during his previous Triple Crown attempts. “Before, I felt that there was more pressure,” Baffert said. “But now I’ve been through it, I know what to expect and I know that at the end of the day you need a good horse and you have to be doing really well.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

On May 18 American Pharoah returned to Churchill Downs, where Barnes supervised his initial training for the Belmont. Baffert flew home to California but came back to Louisville to watch his Triple Crown hopeful put in a maintenance breeze May 26 under Martin Garcia. “The way he’s been running and the things he has done, he’s done very easily and I think he’s going to make it,” Garcia said of the colt’s chances of winning the Triple&bsp;Crown.

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

American Pharoah turned in his final breeze for the Belmont, five furlongs in 1:00.20 June 1 at Churchill Downs, before shipping to New York June 2. That move followed the May 26 four-furlong work in :48, his first after winning the Preakness. Coming off the greatest accomplishments of his career, he was holding his weight well and reassured his connections with his feel-good return to training. “That’s ‘Pharoah,’ ” Baffert said. “When he’s on his game, that’s the way he looks.”

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

Baffert said the talented runner has returned in great shape off his recent wins, and heads to the Belmont in fine form. “He’s come back (from the Preakness) extremely well,” Baffert said. “He only had those two races (the Rebel and Arkansas Derby) and they were light races up at Oaklawn. The Derby was a hard race. It really got him fit. The Preakness he handled really well. He just makes my job easier because he’s such a good horse.”

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

Jill Baffert (left) has been by her husband’s side through the ups and downs of his career, including those former Triple Crown losses. Once again the couple faced that last hurdle toward history. “It’s very emotional for me because, you know, Jill carries a lot of the weight in the house because she knows how disappointing being a horse trainer can be — the highs and lows,” Baffert said. “She keeps me going…You have to prepare yourself for disappointment; otherwise, it will wear on you.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

Prepared for anything—a last-minute injury, a fever, a cough—American Pharoah’s connections encountered no issues. After arriving at Belmont Park June 2 and jogging June 3, their dual classic winner galloped powerfully around the New York oval June 4 and 5 as if he owned the place. “The horse is as ready as we can get him. There’s nothing I could say after the race like ‘Well, shoulda, coulda, woulda,’ ” Baffert remarked. “He’s ready to roll.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

On Belmont day, Alvarez and Luna flanked American Pharoah as the field left the crowded paddock, with Barnes a step ahead of them and Espinoza in the irons. Cheering racing fans lined the path all the way to the track. American Pharoah marched on, focused on his task. “I looked at my wife in the post parade and I told her, ‘Get ready to be the owner of the 12th Triple Crown winner,’ ” Ahmed Zayat said. “He looked unbelievable. Focused. Honest. Relaxed. Full of energy.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

American Pharoah broke perfectly from post 5 at the start of the Belmont, and as he had done in the Preakness, Espinoza let him wing his way to the early lead. “He was just perfect,” the jockey said. “They opened the gate and he just kind of missed (the break) just a little, little touch, but I sent him right away. My plan was to just open up out of the gate by one or two lengths and after that I could slow him down and let him just be happy and run on the racetrack. It was just so nice to be on a horse like American Pharoah. I’m telling you, on the first turn, that was the best feeling I ever had.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

Frosted (inside, white blinkers) and Mubtaahij (outside, white shadow roll) both made runs at American Pharoah, as did Materiality early on, but the fleet-footed runner easily turned them away. By the time he hit the stretch, he was 2½ lengths in front—a margin that would widen as he soared toward the wire. “He just took off,” Espinoza said. “It’s just an amazing feeling that you have when it’s like 20 yards out from the wire and you’re three or four lengths in front. It’s unbelievable. At the wire, it was like, ‘I can’t believe I did it!’ ”

Jeffrey Snyder

Triple Crown winner Secretariat may have taken the 1973 Belmont by a record 31 lengths and in a record time of 2:24, but American Pharoah was faster to the finish in the final yards. Big Red took 25 seconds to run the last quarter; American Pharoah was .68 seconds quicker, going the final two furlongs in :24.32. His time of 2:26.65 for the 1½-mile Belmont is second to Secretariat’s among the 12 Triple Crown winners and is the sixth-fastest in Belmont Stakes history. “It’s ridiculously insane, what he did,” Baffert said.

Anne M. Eberhardt

As American Pharoah crossed the finish line ahead of Frosted (2nd) and Keen Ice (3rd), the crowd at Belmont Park went wild, 90,000-plus voices strong. The sound washed over the colt’s connections, the cathartic celebration of everyone who had waited 37 years to see the streak of Triple Crown losses end. “I could tell by the eighth pole that it was going to happen, and all I did was just take in the crowd,” Baffert said. “The crowd was just—it was thundering and I was just enjoying the call and the crowd, the noise, and everything happening. Thirty-seven years, I’m part of this, but you know what, that little horse, he deserved it. He’s a great horse.”

Chad B. Harmon

American Pharoah stood at the center of the winner’s circle chaos under a blanket of white carnations, having accomplished a feat many believed was no longer possible. “I’ve been saying this for years: Don’t change it,” said Nick Zito, whose starter Frammento finished fifth. “Don’t change it because it’s the hardest thing to do in sports, and when a great horse comes along, you’ll see it. Well, a great horse came along. The game won."

Chad B. Harmon

While Ahmed Zayat and his wife, Joanne, lifted the August Belmont Trophy—awarded annually to the winner of the Belmont Stakes—Baffert held the Triple Crown trophy that would soon bear American Pharoah’s name. “I’m hoping it will bring a lot of young new fans into the game,” Justin Zayat said of American Pharoah’s win. “And I hope every time I come to this track it will be as packed as it is today. I’m just so thankful to have a horse like American Pharoah to be the 12th Triple Crown winner, a dream come true for all of racing. And I’m thankful for Bob Baffert—he gave us our first Derby, and I’m happy we could give him a Triple Crown.”

Skip Dickstein

The morning after his brilliant win American Pharoah was bright-eyed and ready to greet the media. In a rare moment of up-close access, Baffert invited the press corps to approach the Triple Crown champ. “Horses of his caliber are not that nice and sweet,” the trainer said. “They’re just sort of tough. If I brought Bayern out here, you can’t get near him; he’s too aggressive. He’s (American Pharoah) just so different than any horse I’ve ever had.”

Anne M. Eberhardt

American Pharoah even appeared on the “Today Show” between Espinoza and Baffert, minding his manners with Barnes on the shank while promoting the sport. “I wanted to share him with everybody and show everybody how kind and sweet he is…” Baffert remarked. “He’s been so special to me because, for some reason, he connects with you.”

Skip Dickstein

After his big media appearances, it was traveling time for American Pharoah once again. The colt boarded a Brook Ledge van along with Smokey and a few stablemates while photographers tracked his every move, and they were all soon headed to the airport to fly back to Churchill Downs.

Anne M. Eberhardt

American Pharoah and Smokey shared hay on their journey as they shipped to Kentucky. Smokey, a 6-year-old buckskin gelding, is a former reining horse who competed in the 2012 NRHA Futurity and was purchased by Baffert for his “bomb proof” nature and nimble ways. He has attracted quite the following during American Pharoah’s 3-year-old campaign, and is almost as well-known as his accomplished Thoroughbred friend.

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs

The Triple Crown winner returned to Churchill on June 7 around 1:15 p.m. EDT. He was greeted at the airport by a police escort, and fans lined both sides of the street to watch him arrive at the site of his Kentucky Derby win, with more than 100 people waiting inside the track gates at Barn 33 to welcome him. Baffert and Zayat have both said they will map out a schedule for American Pharoah with the major goal the Oct. 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) at Keeneland before he is retired to Ashford Stud. In the interim, American Pharoah will be paraded the evening of June 13, Stephen Foster Day, at the Louisville oval where his historic sweep began.

Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs