BALTIMORE — From a Kentucky horse farm to a sales ring in Saratoga to Bob Baffert’s barn at Santa Anita, American Pharoah gave every indication he’s a champion in the making.
So what if part of his tail is missing and he has cotton stuffed in his ears before races? To owner and breeder Ahmed Zayat, his Kentucky Derby winner and Preakness Stakes favorite American Pharoah is the horse of lifetime.
“He is sheer brilliance and comes with unbelievable character,” said Zayat, who was just warming up. “He is a character. He is a horse that is kind, sweet, heady, classy, beautiful. It’s very rare to have a horse that has it all. He does everything as effortlessly as you can ever think.”
In the months after the bay colt was foaled at Stockplace Farm, outside Lexington, Kentucky, on Feb. 2, 2012, then moved to Vinery farm, Zayat received glowing reports, particularly about the way he acted around other horses.
“Usually, when they are young, they’re silly, they hit each other and jump on each other like little kids,” Zayat said. “I kept getting told he’s acting so mature and confident, like, ‘I’m the leader of this group.”’
Right now, he’s leading many to believe he can win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, set up a Triple Crown attempt in three weeks at the Belmont Stakes and end a record 37-year gap since Affirmed swept the three races.
“I am not going ahead of myself,” Zayat said. “We have to win the Preakness and have to see what happens before allowing myself to think of glory.”
Zayat, who has spent millions on horses since diving headfirst into the business 10 years ago, also is proud American Pharoah is a homebred, a son of his Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile and grandson of another Kentucky Derby runner-up, Empire Maker. His mother is Littleprincessemma, a horse named for Zayat’s daughter, Emma.
“A to Z, he is Zayat blood,” the owner said of American Pharoah. “His dad is the first horse I bred who won a Grade 1. It’s like saying your first team ever won the Super Bowl. And now he comes and wins the Derby and avenges the losses of his dad and grandfather?”
At Vinery, it was Frances Relihan, operations manager at the time, who told Zayat his colt stood out.
“She told me he is the best foal she ever saw,” Zayat recalled. “He was just showing tremendous leadership qualities.”
And then it was on to Taylor Made, where the sales team convinced Zayat his colt could raise Pioneerof the Nile’s profile with breeders, owners and buyers.
Into the ring he went at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale, but with a caveat. Zayat would not sell for under $1 million. As it turned out, Zayat bought him back for $300,000.
Then it was on to Ocala, Florida, where American Pharoah learned how to be a racehorse. The breaking process went well, and Zayat called in trainers for his “breeze show” to showcase his latest crop.
Baffert immediately started lobbying Zayat’s son Justin, the general manager of Zayat Stables.
“As soon as I saw this horse work on the farm, I sent him a video and Bob said to me, ‘Justin, remember the Breeders’ Cup is in California this year,” Justin Zayat said. “He wanted our horse. He saw how good he was from day one. If you want to give a horse time to prepare for the Derby, you’re going to give him to Bob Baffert.”
All did not go well when American Pharoah arrived in Baffert’s barn at Santa Anita. The colt, who, according to Zayat, lost part of his tail when Preakness rival Mr. Z bit it when they were in the field, was a sensitive sort. Distracted occasionally, it showed in his first race. Under Martin Garcia, he ran second most of the race, went wide on the turn, weakened in the stretch and finished fifth, going 5 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar.
Baffert began putting cotton in his ears — earplugs, if you will — and it’s become standard operating procedure before each race. There’s not much acting up, and American Pharoah has not lost since.
With a new rider in Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah won the Del Mar Futurity and the FrontRunner Stakes with ease. He would have been the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but Baffert noticed something wrong — a slight discomfort in the colt’s left front foot. American Pharoah missed the race, still was voted 2-year-old champion and didn’t return to the races for nearly 5 1/2 months.
“When he got hurt, it was the most gut-wrenching thing of my life,” Justin Zayat said. “When he came back, it wasn’t a sigh of relief, it was more of just happiness to see him back, proud of him.”
The comeback was a splashing success. He romped in the Rebel over a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, winning by 6 1/4 lengths. Then he clobbered the field by eight lengths in the Arkansas Derby three weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
Sent off as the Kentucky Derby favorite, American Pharoah struggled most of the way in third place, then fought for the lead coming out of the far turn. He overtook stablemate Dortmund, then outdueled Firing Line and won by a length. If nothing else, it showed American Pharoah could still win despite not running his best race.
“The sign of a great horse is one that has everything go against him and still wins,” Ahmed Zayat said.
Baffert won’t argue. He loves what he sees.
“As always, he just floats over the track,” the five-time Preakness Stakes-winning trainer said Thursday after American Pharoah and stablemate Dortmund galloped around Pimlico Race Course for the first time. “He’s a very sound and healthy horse. He just moves over the ground really well. He’s just brilliant. Does everything so effortlessly.”
It’s what champions do.
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