THE HORSE'S life commenced three years ago, just before midnight on Groundhog Day, in a bluegrass foaling shed near Lexington, Ky. He was pulled from his mother's womb and placed on a bed of straw, sound and strong in every way, even at birth, the type of horse who makes people dream. The Kentucky Derby winner's circle at Churchill Downs was 83 miles to the west. It is hardly any distance at all, yet it is the longest journey in thoroughbred racing.
Two men would fall in step with the horse, guiding him on the journey. As a younger man, trainer Bob Baffert had three times won the Derby, the last 13 years ago when he was 49, and he had been chasing another victory since. Owner Ahmed Zayat had spent tens of millions on young horses in hopes that they could run far and fast. Three times his horses had finished second in the Derby, and in 2010 an injury had forced him to scratch the favorite—Eskendereya—a week before post time. The dues paid by both men scarcely mattered, because the Derby makes you wait, heedless of your passion and your checkbook, indifferent in the face of your study, your long hours and your need for fulfillment. The Derby will gut you just for showing up, and dare you to come back to suffer again.
So Baffert and Zayat watched last Saturday as the horse, a striking 3-year-old colt with a four-race winning streak and a sweet, impeccable stride, was made the 5--2 favorite to win the Derby in front of a record Churchill throng of 170,513. His name is American Pharoah, forever misspelled by a fan in a naming contest. Baffert surrounded himself with family members in the saddling paddock behind the hulking grandstand; Zayat watched in a trackside suite. In the lengthening shadows of a spring afternoon, jockey Victor Espinoza urged American Pharoah past Firing Line in a withering drive to the wire to win by a single length, with Dortmund, Pharoah's Baffert-trained stablemate, a strong third.
Standing on a stone walkway beneath a giant sponsor's clock, Baffert watched the race in silence before at last raising his right fist and saying, more in relief than in celebration, "Yes!" His three sons from his first marriage leaped on him as if he were a victorious World Series pitcher and they were infielders; his second wife, Jill, hung from his neck and wept. "I can't believe it," she said over and over. Baffert pulled away and swept up their son, Bode, 10, whose namesake, Bodemeister, had been caught three years ago in the Derby homestretch by winner I'll Have Another, reducing Baffert to tears. On the day after Saturday's victory, he texted a YouTube video to a reporter of Bode going wild while watching the race, with the message: "This is why it was so special. I was thinking of him the last 100 yards."
In his suite at the finish line, Zayat, 52, lost himself in American Pharoah's drive to the wire. As Pharoah passed into history, Zayat shouted to the older of his two sons, Justin, who serves as his racing manager, "Who was second? Who was third?"
The 83-mile odyssey was finished now. How did we get here? A sore ankle, a pile of cash, a mountain of patience and a pair of puffy ear plugs. Just another day at the office in the world of racing.
IT BEGAN at Stockplace, a breeding farm on the east side of Lexington, where at 11 p.m. on the night of Feb. 2, 2012, Tom VanMeter delivered a foal to Littleprincessemma (named for one of Zayat's two daughters) and Pioneerof the Nile, runner-up in the 2009 Derby. In '13, Zayat moved him to Taylor Made Farm in nearby Nicholasville, where managers told Zayat that the horse was so promising that he should be entered in the prestigious Saratoga Fasig-Tipton yearling sale. "They said he would bring more than a million dollars," says Zayat. Instead, the then unnamed yearling bruised his ankle just before the summertime sale and didn't attract serious bidding. Zayat bought him back for $300,000 and sent him to Kevin and J.B. McKathan's farm outside Ocala, Fla., for breaking.
In the spring of 2014, the McKathan brothers held a special training show for Zayat's 2-year-olds. The star of that show was the still-unnamed American Pharoah, who blistered three furlongs on a deep training track. "It was ridiculous," says J.B. McKathan. "He was flying." Baffert saw the video and wanted the horse; Zayat complied. (Baffert first trained for Zayat in 2007, but the two men clashed and Zayat fired him soon after. Baffert calls it a "good firing," because he couldn't tolerate Zayat's meddling. Having repaired their differences, they reunited two years later and have been together since.)
Pharoah was a handful in the Baffert barn, so much so that grooms and hot walkers took to calling him pendejo, which roughly translated is Spanish for idiot. After he finished fifth in his first start at Del Mar last August, Baffert and assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes took Pharoah's blinkers off to help calm him. They also outfitted him with a fluffy set of earplugs, which he still wears, according to Baffert, whenever he is outside his stall. "They help to keep him more focused," says Baffert. "Great for big crowds and noise." Dortmund also wears earplugs, though his are tethered to a string so that jockey Martin Garcia can yank them out in the starting gate. Pharoah's stay in during a race. They are the only two horses in Baffert's barn that wear earplugs, though the practice is not uncommon. Champion mare Zenyatta, Horse of the Year in 2010, raced with white cotton stuffed into her ears.
Pharoah won the Del Mar Futurity in his second start and the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita in his third. He missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with a deep bruise in his left front hoof and then dominated his two preps in Arkansas. On Kentucky Derby day, however, he was exceptionally high-strung, earplugs and all. He dragged groom Eduardo Garcia Luna and exercise rider George Alvarez so forcefully during the walk from the barn to the paddock that both were sweating. "He had a little bit of a meltdown," says Baffert. "We had to get him settled."
The race played out simply enough. Baffert's Dortmund bounced into the lead from his position in the middle of the starting gate. Firing Line, twice beaten previously by Dortmund in tough stretch drives, moved alongside. American Pharoah, 15 horses to the outside, galloped into third. On the first turn Firing Line's jockey, Gary Stevens, who's 52 and riding with an artificial knee, considered passing Dortmund and taking the lead. "But I figured Dortmund would start fighting me," said Stevens, "and that would set it up for American Pharoah."
Stevens held back, but the race set up for American Pharoah nonetheless. With five furlongs to go, Espinoza began scrubbing. "He started to slow down a little bit," says Espinoza. "So I got into him." As the trio of leaders reached the top of the stretch, Espinoza fanned American Pharoah wide, into the middle of the track, essentially to sneak up on Firing Line, who had passed Dortmund. Espinoza, who had won the Derby for Baffert on War Emblem in 2002, and last year on California Chrome, whipped Pharoah at least 30 times with his right hand over the final quarter mile. The colt had never been hit before. The winning time was a respectable 2:03.02 (though slower than three of the last four Derbys). "Not really fast today," said Espinoza. "But everybody said American Pharoah never had a test. Today he had a test." Baffert became just the fourth trainer to win four Derbys and Espinoza the seventh jockey to win three.
THE STORY LINE now turns to Pharoah's shot at ending racing's 36-year Triple Crown drought. It promises to be a fascinating two weeks to the Preakness. Zayat, an emotional, free-spending Egyptian expatriate and naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Teaneck, N.J., is likely to face multiple examinations of his controversial past. In 2009, Zayat was sued by Fifth Third Bank over unpaid loans, countersued and eventually placed his racing operation in bankruptcy. (Zayat and the bank have since settled and continue to work together.) The bankruptcy filing listed outstanding loans that Zayat had made several years before to a pair of New Jersey men who in '09 pleaded guilty to illegal bookmaking. Four years later Zayat was investigated by the New Jersey Racing Commission for possible violations of state wagering laws. Zayat defends himself vigorously. He says his loans are paid. He says he knew the men long before they were bookmakers—"As if you gave somebody $50 10 years ago, then four years later he bought a gun and killed somebody and they blame you," he says—and that the New Jersey investigation is over. But if Pharoah is in position to win the Triple Crown, Zayat will be a story. "If people come after character issues that do not exist," he says, "I will shout them down."
It is expected that both Dortmund and Firing Line will go after American Pharoah at Pimlico. On Sunday morning, exercise rider Alvarez stood outside Baffert's barn and said, "I don't think we've seen the best of him yet."
Rivalries are in place and the volume is pushed higher. The journey grows longer still.
"EVERYBODY SAID AMERICAN PHAROAH [HAD] NEVER HAD A TEST," ESPINOZA SAID AFTER THE RACE. "TODAY HE HAD A TEST."
Photograph by Bill Frakes For Sports Illustrated
Photographs by Bill Frakes For Sports Illustrated
Three's Company Before yielding in the stretch, Firing Line (pink cap) dueled for more than a mile with American Pharoah (light blue) and Dortmund (dark blue, with star)—both trained by Baffert (below).
Photograph by Bill Frakes For Sports Illustrated
Back on Top Espinoza, who won the Derby last year on California Chrome, also won in 2002 atop Baffert's War Emblem. He's the seventh jockey to win three Derbys.