PREAKNESS MEMORIES: AMERICAN PHAROAH FINALLY THE ONE
On February 2, 2012, a mare named Littleprincessemma, who made all of $172 on the racetrack, gave birth to a leggy, bay colt that would one day change the history of Thoroughbred racing. As the newborn foal climbed to his feet and took his first steps, nobody could have guessed that he was the answer to a question that sport had been obsessed with for over three decades: who would be the next Triple Crown winner?
The hero that horse racing needed came in the form of an athletic bay colt with a short stub of a tail and a misspelled name. Owned and bred by Zayat stables, American Pharoah was placed with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who had conditioned the colt’s father, Pioneerof the Nile, to career earnings of over $1.6 million and a second-place finish in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Initially, the Zayat family had attempted to sell American Pharoah when he was a yearling at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale, but they essentially bought him back for $300,000, saying they wouldn’t sell him for less than $1 million and instead deciding to keep what they could tell was a special animal.
American Pharoah made his debut at the age of two, in a 6 ½ furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar Racecourse. It is safe to say that American Pharoah’s first race was not a prelude of what was to come, as the youngster ran a well-beaten fifth in his first attempt.
The connections of America Pharoah knew that he was better than his maiden effort suggested, and placed him into deep water in his next start, entering him in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. American Pharoah rewarded the faith and confidence of his connections handsomely, crusing home nearly five lengths clear.
It is exceedingly rare for horses to break their maiden in a Grade 1 event, especially in what was only his second race ever. As a result of American Pharoah’s eye-catching victory, it quickly became apparent to those around him that the young horse had found his power, and there was no looking back after that. This colt was the real deal.
In his next start, American Pharoah proved that his score in the Del Mar Futurity was not a fluke. With regular rider Victor Espinoza in the irons, American Pharoah dominated his competition in the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes, flaunting his speed to a three-length triumph. He was beginning to capture the attention of the public now with his graceful yet dominating running style, and fans eagerly awaited the chance to see him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. However, American Pharoah would not get that chance. A bruise on his left front foot forced his connections to scratch him — disappointing blow to both the connections and the fans of the talented horse, but as everyone would go on to find out, much greater things lay ahead for American Pharoah.
Despite skipping the Breeders’ Cup, American Pharoah nevertheless earned the Eclipse Award for champion two-year-old colt, and he grew into an even stronger, faster horse over the winter. The colt began his campaign in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on a sloppy, sealed track. When the starting gates blew open, American Pharoah bounded to the lead willingly and never looked back. American Pharoah left his six rivals in his wake as he rolled to victory by over six lengths.
One month later, American Pharoah was back for more at the same track, this time in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Once again the result was the same. He crushed the field by eight lengths and establishing himself as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
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In 2015, the Kentucky Derby dawned sunny and beautiful in Louisville, KY. All eyes were on American Pharoah as he hustled out of the starting gate as the favorite. American Pharoah’s stablemate, Dortmund, who was hot off a score in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), gunned it for the lead with Sunland Derby winner, Firing Line, scrambling after him in second. American Pharoah kept the leaders in his sights from third while wide. The trio remained in that order for much of the race, but as the final bend loomed ahead things began to heat up.
As the turn for home loomed, Firing Line launched forward with a powerful burst of speed, drawing even with Dortmund. Back in third, Espinoza began riding American Pharoah harder, and the colt responded. The trio reached the quarter pole as one, heads apart.
With massive strides Dortmund hung in gamely but Firing Line and American Pharoah proved too much. Stride by stride the pair began to put Dortmund away and dueled with each other as they charged down the stretch. As the wire appeared ahead, American Pharoah found something more and shook off the challenge of his rival. American Pharoah soared ahead and claimed the roses as his own.
While the sun shined brightly on the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May, it did not shine in Baltimore two weeks later at Pimlico Racecourse. Ominous, black clouds consumed the sky and unleashed a fury of rain and wind right at post time for the Preakness Stakes. The conditions for the race were less than ideal, but the show had to go on.
The rain was not the only thing standing against American Pharoah in the Preakness. His post position of #1 was also working against him according to history. No horse had won the Preakness Stakes breaking from post position one since 1994, but in the end, it would prove to be just another hurdle to clear.
American Pharoah exploded swiftly out of the starting gate in the Preakness Stakes and seized the lead within the first-quarter mile. Longshot Mr. Z gave chase in second, with familiar foes Firing Line and Dortmund not far behind. Soon, though, it began to be clear that no matter how hard they tried, the competition was simply no match for American Pharoah.
“I didn’t want to get mud kicked into my horse’s face,” Espinoza said of his fast start.
American Pharoah dashed through swift fractions of :22.90, :46.49, and 1:11.42 for the first six furlongs of the 1 3/16-mile test. The day may have been dark and dreary, but American Pharoah’s performance was anything but. From out of the fog and rain, American Pharoah charged over the finish line clear by seven lengths, leaving the door open for the possibility of a Triple Crown sweep.
“He skips through anything,” Baffert said of the colt that had mastered a soupy racetrack some wags jokingly referred to as Swimlico.
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Not since 1978 when Affirmed stubbornly maintained the lead in all three Triple Crown races had the feat been matched. After 37 long years of failure after failure, many were starting to think that the Triple Crown had become impossible. Both Baffert and Espinoza were no strangers to the difficult task ahead, as they both had come close to claiming racing’s most coveted prize before.
Baffert had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown – only to be denied in the Belmont – with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet the following year, and again in 2002 with War Emblem.
For Victor Espinoza, the bitter taste of Triple Crown defeat was still fresh, as he had come close to ending the drought in 2014 aboard Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero California Chrome.
Unlike Baffert’s and Espinoza’s prior Belmont tries, American Pharoah left no doubt. He grabbed the lead early and pulled away late to win by over five lengths. How good was his performance? He navigated the final half-mile of the 1 ½-mile race in 48.66 seconds – faster than he ran the opening half.
As Pharoah neared the wire, track announcer Larry Collmus euphorically declared the words that racing fans had yearned to hear for nearly four decades: “And here it is! The 37-year wait is over. American Pharoah is FINALLY the one! American Pharoah has won the Triple Crown!”
“Down the backside he was in his groove and I knew he’s a great horse and he was going to do it,” Baffert said after the race. “He’s just a great horse. It takes a great horse to win the Triple Crown. I could tell by the eighth pole it was going to happen and all I did was just take in the crowd. It was thundering.”
American Pharoah raced three more times after his Triple Crown exhibition. He romped to easy victory in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational, before being upset by Keen Ice in the Travers Stakes (G1) at Saratoga, which is fittingly referred to as the “graveyard of champions.” American Pharoah’s runner-up effort in the Travers did little to set him back, and he returned in the fall to claim the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
For his stellar season, American Pharoah was named champion three-year-old colt and Horse of the Year.
Today, American Pharoah stands as a stud at Ashford Stud in Versailles, KY. His first crop of runners hit the track in 2019, and the sire has already been represented with nearly 70 winners, including seven graded stakes winners.
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