LOUISVILLE — Two men waited for the right horse, the horse that would bring them home. The Derby makes you wait, heedless of your passion and your checkbook, soulless in the face of your study, your long hours and your need for completion. The Derby governs with an iron fist, with crippling injuries, cruel racing luck and sometimes with just plain slow racehorses. The Derby will gut you just for showing up and dare you to come back to suffer again.
Early Saturday evening trainer Bob Baffert stood with his family in the saddling paddock behind the hulking grandstand and watched the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on television, away from the loudest of the noise. He had won the race three times as a younger man, but the last time was 13 years ago and he has chased it unsuccessfully since. He has been divorced, married again, lived through a heart attack (in Dubai) and saddled 12 more Derby starters, but he hadn’t again won the race that matters most in America.
In a suite adjacent to the finish line, owner Ahmed Zayat gathered his sprawling family. He had never won the Derby, but three times he had finished second and once he had scratched the prohibitive favorite a week before the race. Through it all he had spent tens of millions of dollars on young horses in hopes that they could run far and fast, and five years ago he had publicly endured an embarrassing financial setback. But he had not won the Derby at all.
Together, yet apart, Baffert and Zayat watched as American Pharoah, a bay colt with a truncated tail, a misspelled name and one of the sweetest strides on four equine legs, caught Firing Line beneath the lengthening shadows of Churchill Downs’s twin spires, and then beat down his stubborn rival in a withering drive to the wire to win by a single length. Standing on a stone walkway beneath a giant sponsor’s clock, Baffert watched the race in silence before at last raising his right fist into the air and saying, more in relief than in celebration, “Yes!” His three sons from his first marriage leaped on him as if he was a victorious World Series pitcher and they were infielders; his second wife, Jill, hung from his neck and wept. “I can’t believe it,” she said over and over. Baffert, who is now one of four trainers with four Derby victories, pulled away and swept up his son, Bode, whose namesake, Bodemeister, had been caught two years ago in the Derby homestretch by winner I’ll Have Another, reducing Baffert to tears and prompting him to make a quick exit into snarled Derby traffic.
In his suite at the finish line, Zayat lost himself in American Pharoah’s drive to the wire. He had so loved this colt that two years ago, after he had entered Pharoah in a high-priced yearling auction at Saratoga, Zayat bought him back, essentially paying himself $300,000 to keep the horse. As Pharoah passed into history on Saturday, Zayat shouted to his son, Justin, one of his four children, “Who was second? Who was third?” He would scarcely be more composed much later. “Our horse won, I am so thrilled,” he said as walked from the televised infield victory ceremony to a press conference. “So much emotion.”
So for Baffert and Zayat, the wait for victory ended with a horse who had come to Kentucky seemingly on wings—a winner of four consecutive races, including two Derby preps by a total of more than 14 lengths—and with towering expectations. A record Derby crowd of 170,513 came to Churchill Downs, in part, to see if he had also come with courage.
This year’s Derby field had been regarded by railbirds and handicappers as one of the deepest in many years. It included at least half a dozen horses who were either unbeaten (Dortmund and Materiality), once-beaten (American Pharoah and Carpe Diem) or seldom beaten (International Star, who eventually scratched; Upstart, Frosted and Firing Line). Many of them had never faced each other, so Baffert likened the race to the NCAA tournament, with entries from different geographic reasons. (It turns out California was best this time, and clearly so).
It was a simple race, contested fully by just three horses. When the starting gate opened, Baffert’s Dortmund, the easy and impressive winner of the Santa Anita Derby, bounded into the lead from his position in the middle of the starting gate. Firing Line, owned by former Talbot’s CEO Arnold Zetcher, and twice beaten by Dortmund in tough stretch drives, moved alongside. American Pharoah, 15 horses to the outside, galloped easily into third. “I bounced right out of the gate,” said Espinoza. “I could hear jockeys yelling behind me, but I didn’t care.”
In the first turn, jockey Gary Stevens, on Firing Line, considered passing Dortmund and taking the lead. “My horse was pulling harder on me than I would have liked,” said Stevens, 52, who has an artificial right knee. “I could see [jockey] Martin [Garcia] was having the same problem with Dortmund. I figured if I dropped my horse’s head and went on by, Dortmund would start fighting me, and that would set it up for American Pharoah.”
Stevens held back, but the race set up for American Pharoah nonetheless. Dortmund, with Firing Line on his tail, set modest fractions of 23.24 for a quarter mile, 47.34 for a half and 1:11.29 for three-quarters. With five-eighths of a mile to run, Espinoza began scrubbing. “He started to slow down a little bit,” says Espinoza. “So got into him.” As the trio of leaders reached the top of the stretch, Espinoza fanned American Pharoah wide, into the middle of the racetrack, essentially to sneak up on Firing Line, who had passed Dortmund. It didn’t work. “I saw a shadow, then I heard Victor chirping, then I saw the Zayat colors,” says Stevens, “but I wasn’t surprised.”
Espinoza, who had won the Derby for Baffert with War Emblem in 2002 and last year on California Chrome, smacked Pharoah at least 30 times with a righthanded whip over the final quarter mile. The colt had never been hit before. American Pharoah and Firing Line, briefly bumped in the final jumps, as Pharoah lugged in away from Espinoza’s stick and Stevens angled Firing Line out. The winning time was a respectable 2:03.02 (three of the last four Derbys have been faster). “Not really fast today,” said Espinoza, who became the seventh jockey to win three Kentucky Derbies. “But everybody said American Pharoah [had] never had a test. Today he had a test.”
According to Baffert and Zayat, Pharoah, if unhurt, will go on to the second leg of the Triple Crown, the May 16 Preakness, in Baltimore. The Triple Crown has famously not been won since Affirmed swept the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont in 1978, and it is much too soon to know if Pharoah is worthy contender for such an elusive prize.
There is justice of sorts in Pharoah’s win; he is a son of the stallion Pioneerof the Nile, whom Zayat and Baffert trained to a second-place Derby finish in 2009 behind 50–1 shot Mine That Bird and the redoubtable jockey, Calvin Borel. Pharoah's mother is Littleprincessemma, named for one of Zayat’s two daughters. The colt was born at Stockplace Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, shipped to Taylor Made Farm as a yearling and immediately stamped for greatness. “They told he was an unbelievable athlete, unbelievable appearance,” says Zayat. “They also told me that since I’m running a business, I should enter him in the [Fasig-Tipton] Saratoga sale, a high-end sale. They said he would bring more than a million dollars.” Instead, the then-unnamed yearling bruised his ankle just before the sale and didn’t attract serious bidding. Zayat bought him back for $300,000 and sent him to Kevin and J.B. McKathan’s farm in Ocala, Fla., for breaking.
In the spring of 2014, the McKathan Brothers held a special training show for Zayat’s two-year-olds. The star of that show was the still-unnamed American Pharoah, who blistered three-eighths of a mile on a deep training track. “It was ridiculous,” says J.B. McKathan. “He was flying.” Baffert watched tape of the workout and asked Zayat to let him train Pharoah. Zayat complied and sent Pharoah to Baffert, but not before allowing a fan to name the colt on the Zayat website. The fan spelled "Pharaoh" wrong, transposing the o and the second a, but Justin Zayat didn’t notice and simply pasted the name into an application to The Jockey Club. The misspelling was made permanent.
Pharoah became a handful in the Baffert barn, so much so that he was called pendejo, which roughly translated from Spanish means idiot. But he won the Del Mar Futurity in his second start, missed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with a minor injury and then dominated his two preps in Arkansas.
All of this did nothing but make Zayat and Baffert an odd mix of confident and fearful. Zayat had finished second in the Derby not only with Pioneerof the Nile, but also with Nehro (2011) and Bodemeister (’12). And in 2010 his Eskendreya was the likely favorite, but was injured and had to scratch seven days before the race (the injury eventually forced the colt’s retirement). “Relaxed, nervous, scared, all of those things,” Zayat said of his state of mind four days before the Derby. “But there is something different about this horse.” On the day before Derby, Zayat said, “This horse is coming out of his skin.”
Baffert, meanwhile, kept his confidence at arm’s length, having seen not only Pioneerof the Nile’s tough beat, but also having gone down to defeat in 2010, when eventual Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky drew the dreaded No. 1 post position. “I know I’ve got a good horse,” he said before the Derby. “We need to break clean. And we need to get the trip.”
American Pharoah fought his groom throughout the entire 10-minute walk around the clubhouse turn from the Churchill Downs barn area to the paddock. For much of the prerace saddling period, while many of his rivals circled the paddock, Pharoah stood in his stall. Baffert hustled away any entourage members who came too close, except for Ahmed Zayat. “We got him calmed down,” said Baffert. “He was pretty worked up.” When the horses walked to the track to the strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” Baffert stayed behind.
“When I hear that song,” he said, “I know it’s almost over. My job is done.” He talked to a small group of journalists who waited with him in the fading sunshine, cutting his own nerves with joke after joke, filling the last agonizing minutes of anticipation that began months ago. “Somebody is going to be happy soon,” he said. “I just hope it’s me.” Soon the waiting would end.