Just when some began to wonder whether the Triple Crown was ancient history, a relic of the past buried beneath the sands of time, along came a conqueror to re-establish the kingdom – American Pharoah.
For this historic accomplishment as the first U.S. Triple Crown hero in 37 years, and the burnishing of his legacy in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), American Pharoah was honored as the 2015 Horse of the Year at Saturday night’s Eclipse Awards gala at Gulfstream Park.
The result was a foregone conclusion, with the only question of whether the electorate would give him a unanimous accolade. It did: American Pharoah received all 261 votes for Horse of the Year, as well as for champion 3-year-old male. Only one other Eclipse Horse of the Year was honored by unanimous vote, the legendary John Henry in 1981.
And American Pharoah had coattails, so to speak, lifting most of his human connections to Eclipse Awards in their respective categories – Zayat Stables as champion owner and breeder, and Hall of Famer Bob Baffert as champion trainer. Only regular rider Victor Espinoza was left out, strictly because of the incredible year that jockey Javier Castellano enjoyed.
American Pharoah boasts a distinction that separates the lesser from the greater lights of the Triple Crown: he had also ranked as the champion 2-year-old male of 2014. The list of past 2-year-old champions to have swept the Triple Crown comprises Count Fleet (1943), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978). Thus American Pharoah joined the elitist of Triple Crown winners, raising his profile still further in the annals of American racing.
As a more tangible reward for his supremacy, American Pharoah raked in $8,288,800 in 2015, setting a North American single-season earnings record. For his career as a whole, the handsome bay sports an 11-9-1-0 resume and earnings of $8,650,300 – fourth to Curlin, Cigar, and Skip Away on the list of the richest North American-based Thoroughbreds of all time.
Adding to his appeal, American Pharoah is a sweet-tempered colt with a Zayat family story. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, was likewise a Zayat homebred trained by Baffert. One of the leading sophomores of 2009, Pioneerof the Nile compiled a four-race winning streak before finishing second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby (G1).
American Pharoah’s dam, Littleprincessemma, was named in honor of owner Ahmed Zayat’s daughter, Emma. The mare, by Yankee Gentleman, is a half-sister to graded-winning sprinters Storm Wolf and Misty Rosette. That speedy maternal side raised stamina questions, but American Pharoah inherited the best of both worlds: the quickness of his dam married to the distance capacity of his sire line, making for a lethal combination. While American Pharoah was listed as sold for $300,000 as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton Saratoga, the Kentucky-bred was actually bought back by his owner/breeder.
Only fifth as the 7-5 favorite in his career debut in a Del Mar maiden race, American Pharoah came right back in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and romped by 4 3/4 front-running lengths. Baffert believed that an equipment change — removing blinkers — was the key to his turnaround. American Pharoah stepped up in distance to 1 1/16 miles in the FrontRunner (G1) at Santa Anita, and proved effective around two turns with a convincing 3 1/4-length score.
Installed as the 2-1 morning-line favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) over the same track and trip, American Pharoah was scratched with what was believed to be a foot bruise. It later transpired that a suspensory ligament may have been involved as well, and he got time off to recuperate.
A healthy American Pharoah then began to burn up the worktab at Santa Anita in preparation for his return. The champion came back with a bang in the Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn Park, speeding to the lead, and skipping over the sloppy surface, to dominate by 6 1/4 lengths. His performance was even more impressive considering that he ran with his right front shoe semi-detached.
American Pharoah made another visit to Oaklawn for the April 11 Arkansas Derby (G1), where he showed a new dimension: being able to sit off the speed. On cruise control for Espinoza, he took command on the far turn and opened up by eight lengths down the lane in an apparently effortless display.
That propelled American Pharoah into 5-2 favoritism for the May 2 Kentucky Derby, where he again employed a stalking style but had to work a bit harder. Despite racing wide throughout, the champion finally imposed his will on Firing Line and ground out a one-length decision.
When the heavens poured down a deluge of rain minutes before the May 16 Preakness (G1), it was virtually an omen that American Pharoah would complete the classic double. Reminiscent of his Rebel heroics in the slop, he hustled to the front and widened his margin to seven lengths at the wire.
Three weeks later, American Pharoah stood on the threshold of immortality, if he could only complete the elusive Triple Crown sweep in the June 6 Belmont S. (G1). No horse had accomplished the feat since Affirmed in 1978, and history itself appeared to become an obstacle.
But American Pharoah joined the exclusive club, and became U.S. racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, in wire-to-wire style. Extending his advantage over the pursuing Frosted to 5 1/2 lengths, he turned in a superb time of 2:26.65 for the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles.
Following his epic victory, American Pharoah was celebrated by the racing world. He paraded before his throngs of fans at both Churchill Downs and at Santa Anita in June, continued to spark waves of enthusiasm on his ensuing travels to the East Coast, and was feted at his summer home of Del Mar. As one wag said, not since the King Tut exhibition had an Egyptian-themed display generated such a popular response.
American Pharoah made his first post-Triple Crown start in the August 2 Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth, where he easily racked up his eighth straight victory. Gearing down in deep stretch, he coasted home by 2 1/4 lengths from Keen Ice.
But his winning streak came to an end in the August 29 Travers (G1) at Saratoga, which once more lived up to its reputation as the “graveyard of favorites.” American Pharoah was pressed early by Frosted, and uncharacteristically had to work hard as the two matched strides turning for home. He gamely fought back after being headed by Frosted and regained the lead, only to be passed late by Keen Ice.
Zayat, speaking from the passion of the moment, sounded as though he might retire his champion. But Baffert intervened, and after a lengthy summit, Zayat agreed to let American Pharoah advance to a grand finale in the October 31 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.
In hindsight, his connections believed that American Pharoah had been too aggressive in his public gallop before a packed crowd at Saratoga on Travers Eve. That characteristic willingness, combined with his competitive nature roused by the fans, may have caused him to leave his race on the track a day early.
Baffert was convinced that he could bring American Pharoah back to his peak for the Breeders’ Cup, and the Hall of Famer was true to his word. After a series of works suggesting that the Triple Crown star was on the verge of a dynamic performance, American Pharoah was a coiled spring that finally found release.
Although the Classic field was missing champion mare Beholder, who bled after a work, and Liam’s Map, who instead plundered the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1), American Pharoah turned in a devastating performance to silence any naysayers. He controlled the pace in his typically effortless style and cleared away by 6 1/2 lengths from Effinex, with champion older male Honor Code third, and Keen Ice put in his place in fourth.
Aside from scoring a resounding victory in his only sortie versus his elders, American Pharoah was completing the newly minted “Grand Slam” of the Triple Crown plus the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Classic was recognized as the TwinSpires Performance of the Year, based on American Pharoah’s gaudy 113 BRIS Speed rating and 126.5 Class rating.
American Pharoah’s most iconic success, however, will always be his Triple Crown-clinching Belmont. Voted NTRA’s Moment of the Year, his Belmont victory also yielded an Eclipse Award-winning Photograph of the Year by the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Michael Clevenger (on the right). The other Eclipse-winning Photograph is also of American Pharoah, captured by Scott Serio during his pre-Classic gallop on Keeneland’s picturesque training track.
As a measure of how much American Pharoah transcended racing, he won the popular vote for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. The editors, however, sided with tennis star Serena Williams. American Pharoah was likewise in the running for the Associated Press’s Male Athlete of the Year, which ultimately went to NBA MVP Stephen Curry. But for a Thoroughbred even to be in the discussion revealed that American Pharoah had penetrated the popular sports consciousness.
The fans’ voices were heard nonetheless when American Pharoah was given the Vox Populi Award. Baffert received the trophy on his behalf from award creator Penny Chenery of Secretariat fame, underscoring the Triple Crown association.
American Pharoah is in line for still more acclaim. He was ranked number one on the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings as of November 8, and may still hold that spot when the final 2015 list is unveiled January 19 in London.
And it goes without saying that his induction into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs is a moral certainty.
Like a potentate whose sovereignty is unquestioned, American Pharoah is now living a life of luxurious ease at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud near Versailles, Kentucky. Well-credentialed mares will visit his court (for a $200,000 stud fee) in hopes of having little “Pharoahs” with some measure of their sire’s exceptional ability. We can dream of a dynasty, maybe even one as celebrated as Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. We can dream because, as American Pharoah reminded us, sometimes the dream is indeed fulfilled.
Top portrait by NYRA/Coglianese Photography/Susie Raisher;
Derby roses courtesy of Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos;
Belmont over-the-shoulder courtesy of Michael Clevenger/Louisville Courier-Journal;
Breeders’ Cup Classic photo courtesy of Keeneland/Coady Photography.