LOUISVILLE — When future Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah arrived in trainer Bob Baffert’s California barn last summer, he was disagreeable in the extreme, ornery and disinclined to relax while learning a racehorse’s routine from his human handlers. Before his first race last August at Del Mar, Pharoah became overheated and difficult and finished fifth as the prohibitive favorite. Baffert, who had seen glimpses of the colt’s immense talent and classic stride in training, decided to make changes to both the horse’s routine and equipment. One of the most significant changes was to outfit American Pharoah with earplugs.
On the morning after Pharoah’s one-length Derby victory over California rival Firing Line (with Pharoah’s Baffert-trained stablemate Dortmund in third), Baffert and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes showed Sports Illustrated the plugs that Pharoah has been wearing throughout a five-race winning streak that now includes his Derby victory. Pharoah’s earplugs are puffy, soft balls—smaller than tennis balls, bigger than golf balls—that can be purchased at a trackside tack shop or online for about $6. Baffert said that American Pharoah wears the plugs, “whenever he’s outside his stall for any reason.”
Baffert said he went to the earplugs to get Pharoah to behave in a more relaxed fashion by reducing his exposure to loud, external stimuli. “He was such a handful when we first got him,” said Baffert. “We decided to try the earplugs because they help to keep him more focused. They’re great for big crowds and noise. They don’t work for all horses. Some horses will get mad at you and shake their head when you put them in.”
Baffert said he uses earplugs on just two horses in his stable—the two that ran in the Kentucky Derby. Dortmund also uses plugs, but his are tethered to each other by a string, which jockey Martin Garcia uses to snatch the plugs out just before the race starts. Dortmund is less bothered, and possibly motivated, by noise during a race.
It’s not clear how many racehorses use earplugs, but the practice is not uncommon. The mare Zenyatta, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2009, won Horse of the Year in ’10 and didn’t lose a race until the final start of her 20-race career, had absorbent cotton stuffed into her ears at all times outside her stall from very early in her training. “Early on, we could see that she was distracted by people yelling around the barn or by the sound of a rider hitting a horse with a whip,” says John Shirreffs, who trained Zenyatta. “Those overreactions would affect her ability to relax.”
Shirreffs said he frequently uses plugs or cotton as a temporary aid, and sometimes more intensively. “Horses have a very keen sense of hearing,” says Shirreffs. “If a horse is distracted by a situation with a lot of clapping or other noises, they’re going to get wound up and waste energy, especially high-strung, Grade I caliber horses. You need them to calm down a little to relax and cover a distance of ground. Now maybe with a sprinter, you want noise, to keep him engaged.”
Both Shirreffs and Baffert said that earplugs are more commonly used in show jumping, and that harness horses often employ the removable type of plugs that Dortmund uses. Another option for horses is a style of hood that covers the horse’s ears, although this is not commonly used with thoroughbred racehorses in the U.S.
Even Baffert can’t fully measure the effect of the earplugs on American Pharoah’s racing. With the plugs, he won two races late last summer and then dominated two Derby preps in Arkansas. Before Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, however, Pharoah—with his plugs in—was clearly uncomfortable on the traditional walk around the clubhouse turn from the Churchill Downs barn area to the saddling paddock, when he was surrounded by dozens of members of various entourages and media members and eventually passed the jammed grandstand. “He had a little bit of a meltdown,” said Baffert. Whether the earplugs diminished that meltdown is guesswork, but Baffert said he expects American Pharoah to wear them in the Preakness, as well.