American Pharoah's legacy tested as racing career turns for the finish line
ARCADIA, Calif. — The big horse stood quietly in his stall last week at Santa Anita Park, behind white webbing that displays his famously misspelled name, American Pharoah, and his singular distinction as winner of the 2015 Triple Crown. He extended his neck into the dusky shedrow and gobbled a handful of carrots from a visitor and then aggressively sought more, as is his habit. He’s as friendly as he is fast, which is not always the case with racehorses. Trainer Bob Baffert smacked the colt affectionately on the thick muscle in his left shoulder and then turned uncharacteristically wistful. “I try not to get to too attached to these horses,” he said. “They come and they go, you know? But this one, when he leaves, it’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be really hard.”
Thirty-three days had passed since Pharoah’s historic victory on June 6 in the Belmont Stakes. Thirty-three days since he became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Thirty-three days since Belmont Park shook with a roar that still echoes through the sport, and beyond.
Georgie Alvarez, the 39-year-old exercise rider who pilots Pharoah during his routine morning gallops, walked past the stall in his aviator sunglasses and scruffy beard. “Hey, tomorrow is your day off, right?” Baffert said to him. “Why don’t you come on over and gallop [American Pharoah] at 9 a.m.? Look dude, you’re only going to have him for three more months.” A week earlier, Baffert and Alvarez had brought Pharoah out for photo shoot and were caught off guard when this sweet soul had been spooked by the blast of a car horn. Only after he turned skittish did they realize that they had forgotten to insert the fluffy, tennis ball-sized earplugs that Pharoah customarily wears whenever he leaves his stall. The plugs were inserted and the colt was docile again. Everyone laughed. Little moments like this linger now. And this is the way it works with great horses; they are here and they are gone. In the last days of the great mare Zenyatta’s career, the mood around her barn at Hollywood Park had been more funereal than celebratory.
“I’m never going to have another horse like this one,” Baffert says.
But there is more work ahead. On Tuesday, American Pharoah moved 100 miles south to Del Mar to finish preparing for his return to racing in the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park. What Baffert calls the “petting zoo,” stage of Pharoah’s career—parading for fans at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita, posing for photographs outside his stall—is coming to an end. Something else altogether lies ahead.
There is no second act in sports quite like that of a Triple Crown winner returning to the races, a high risk, low reward encore in which the horse cannot exceed what he has already accomplished—at best he can validate it. He can become more valuable, but not significantly so. And he can get injured, or worse. American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, says, “Nobody can ever take away the fact that he is a Triple Crown winner,” and that is true. But every additional race that the colt runs could become the defeat that smudges his portrait.
Baffert is determined not to put Pharoah in a position to lose and perhaps diminish his place in history. For him, it all goes back to 1973 when, eight weeks after his historic victory in the Belmont, Secretariat was upset by a horse named Onion in the Whitney at Saratoga. “I was in Nogales [Arizona],” says Baffert, who was 20 years old at the time. “I remember reading about in the paper the next day. ‘Secretariat lost? And the horse’s name was Onion?’ I just hated to see that.” Likewise he remembers that four years later Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew made his first start after the Belmont in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park and was trounced by J.O. Tobin, beaten by 16 lengths. Secretariat came back to win three of his last four starts before retiring; Seattle Slew didn’t race again as a 3-year-old, but returned as a terrific 4-year-old and beat 1978 Triple Crown champion Affirmed in the fall of that year. No matter to Baffert; the damage to both horse’s legacies had been done.
Case in point: California Chrome did not win the Triple Crown in 2014, falling short in the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Chrome was a popular and successful racehorse, but his legacy has suffered since peaking with his Preakness victory. He ran a strong third in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (won by the the Baffert-trained Bayern), and was second last March in the $5 million Dubai World Cup. But after the race, majority owner Perry Martin shipped the colt to England—against the wishes of minority owner Steve Coburn and trainer Art Sherman—with the intention of increasing his value as a stallion by winning major turf races. Instead, Chrome suffered a hoof bruise and never raced in Europe. He returned to the U.S. last week, appearing significantly underweight. He was subsequently found to have a bruised cannon bone and may never race again. California Chrome is safely ensconced in history as a Derby and Preakness winner, yet there’s bitter taste in racing’s mouth over his recent issues.
Baffert will seek to avoid any such negative vibes with Pharoah. “With everything this horse has done for us,” says Baffert, “we owe it to him to not send him over there [to the starting gate] unless he is absolutely wound up and ready to run his best race. And I’m not going to. We are at the point now where every race could be his last race. If he shows any sign of going backward, we’ll retire him on the spot.”
Zayat says that he is in agreement with Baffert, but at a significantly lower level of intensity. “Bob feels a lot of pressure,” says Zayat. “Rightfully so. With Bob, his memory always comes back to Secretariat losing to Onion. He tells me, ‘I don’t want to do that to this horse.’ Clearly, he’s [a] once in a lifetime [horse] for me, for Bob, for a lot of other people. The horse comes first. If he isn’t ready to run, he will tell us. But if he’s ready, he’s very close to unbeatable.”
According to Zayat, Pharoah has a schedule for the rest of the 2015, but it is very much subject to change. First the Haskell. “Not because I’m from New Jersey,” says Zayat, who lives in Teaneck, in the northern part of the state. “But because I [want] to give him a breather after the grueling campaign he’s had. The goal is to win without much effort.
“If the horse has an easy race in the Haskell and he comes out of it well, Bob and I and the whole world would love to see him at Saratoga in the Travers [on Aug 29]. That is a decent possibility. Then he would run the Pennsylvania Derby [on Sept. 19 at Parx racetrack outside Philadelphia], and then nothing until the Breeders’ Cup Classic [at Keeneland, in Lexington, Ky., on Oct. 31]. Bob and I are in agreement that these should be his target races.”
Baffert, however, is more conservative about future plans. “One race at a time,” he says. “I’m a last-minute guy.” The trainer also has no great affection for Saratoga. He has nothing against the city or the institution, but rather the track itself. “People say [that] I hate Saratoga,” says Baffert. “I don’t hate Saratoga. It’s a quirky racing surface. Good horses get beat up there.” Baffert is 1 for 5 in the Travers, though his one victory came in 2001, with Point Given, who first ran in the Haskell—and won. (Baffert also says that the Del Mar racing surface is quirky, and he and Zayat indicate that American Pharoah is unlikely to run there.)
Running in lockstep with the reputation issue for American Pharoah is the money issue, always a major factor at the highest levels of racing. Zayat announced during the Triple Crown run that he had sold the colt’s stallion rights for an undisclosed sum to Coolmore Stud. But several sources have told Sports Illustrated that the deal had been done long before—early in 2015 at the latest. “I categorically deny that the deal was done in 2014, which some people have said,” says Zayat. “I won’t comment further on the date. I will say that I am a businessman and there has not been money left on the table, because when I made the deal, I considered every possible future achievement and had kickers written into the deal. What if he wins the Derby? What if he wins the Preakness? What if he wins the Triple Crown?”
Zayat says that American Pharoah’s stallion deal includes several additional incentives attached to race victories. He says that a victory in the Haskell would probably do nothing to increase the colt’s value as a stallion, but a victory in the Travers (a Grade I race) would. As would a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Zayat also says that the stud fee of American Pharoah’s sire, Pioneer of the Nile, in whom the owner says he retains a significant share, could go from the current $60,000 to more than $100,000 in 2016, with the possibility of 150 matings. Zayat says that his stud deal with Coolmore allows him to keep a significant interest in American Pharoah. Obviously, if American Pharoah were to get seriously injured while racing—to the point where he could not perform as either a racehorse or a stallion—his value would be reduced to that of an insurance policy. There is no minimizing this gamble for all parties, hence Baffert’s and Zayat’s assurances that Pharoah will not run at the slightest sign of physical regression. As to whether he fears a serious injury, Zayat says, “Yes and no. Bob Baffert never trains scared. Number one rule of the game.”
As far as the racing itself, Pharoah’s performance in his recent resumption of training would seem to indicate that he remains at the top of his game. “The only time he’s ever come back to the barn blowing and tired was after the Derby,” says Baffert. That race, according to Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, remains a marvel. “He was empty with a half mile left in the race,” says Baffert. “I mean empty.” Espinoza says, “I started riding him at the half-mile pole and I’m like ‘Holy s---! What’s happening here?” Says Baffert, “You got a horse that’s empty, and wins the Kentucky Derby, that’s a great horse. People told me, ‘You’ve got to run against older horses.' Trust me, I’m not worried about older horses. Not with this guy.”
Pharoah won the Belmont by an easy 5½ lengths and was disparaged afterward with side-by-side Internet videos of the 1973 Belmont that showed he would have been trounced by Secretariat. “Victor could have opened up and won by 10,” says Baffert. “Why do that?” In the long hours at the barn, the trainer frets about the coming months. Pharoah still has the plate in his left front shoe that was put in last March to protect a sore hoof, though he probably doesn’t need it anymore. “But I’m afraid to take it off,” says Baffert. “He’s used to it.”
Three months left. Maybe four races. And in end, the horse alone will write the final chapter.