Following Pharoah on the Derby Trail

It has been an amazing and magical journey for American Pharoah, as well as for racing fans across America, sports fans, horse lovers, and anyone who appreciates true greatness.

We are now into August and the American Pharoah legend keeps growing, as does his aura of invincibility. But invincibility exists moment to moment. Whether it defines the colt and his career upon his retirement later this year we will find out in the months to come.

Sometimes it is good to look back to where and when thoughts of greatness originate and how one was perceived before the ascension to national celebrity.

What follows is a chronicle of American Pharoah’s rise from an injured 2-year-old champion with a one-dimensional style of running to an icon; the personification of perfection -- physically, mechanically, and mentally. In short, the ultimate racing machine.

The chronicle alluded to is the Derby Dozen, as we travel with American Pharoah through all the early pitfalls and the question marks that surround a young 3-year-old coming off an injury, a long layoff, and with a propensity for early front-running speed, not a desirable quality for a Kentucky Derby horse. Many also questioned his pedigree, especially on the dam side through broodmare sire Yankee Gentleman, a concern totally unwarranted with closer study.

Find out why he maintained the No. 1 ranking for 10 straight weeks from Feb. 17 to the final Dozen on April 21, despite not making his first start until March 14, while stars like Dortmund, Carpe Diem, Upstart, and Firing Line dominated the major 3-year-old stakes; all possessing the qualities of a true Derby horse. Even after American Pharoah’s debut romp in the Rebel Stakes, his stablemate Dortmund still held the No. 1 spot on the NTRA weekly poll – 22 first-place votes to 15.

Under normal circumstances, I would never have a frontrunner, coming off an injury, and not making his first start until mid-March as my No. 1 Derby horse, especially so early in the year. But I was going by one factor only – that there was a very good chance these were not normal circumstances and we were not dealing with an ordinary horse. That became my only defense for the first-place ranking even when Dortmund and Carpe Diem looked so impressive winning the San Felipe and Tampa Bay Derby on the same day, while American Pharoah still had not run and was ranked fourth on the NTRA poll behind Dortmund, Carpe Diem, and Upstart, with only five first-place votes compared to 34 for Dortmund.

So, here is a week-by-week look back at this year’s Derby Dozen comments on American Pharoah, perhaps reflecting on what many of us were thinking at the time. Maybe it’s just me, but looking back on these comments it seems like such a long time ago.

Jan, 27

Putting him at No. 2 despite his injury, not scheduled to make his 3-y-o debut until March, and his one-dimensional style of running, all of which leave questions about how he will make the transition from 2 to 3. But superseding all that is the colt’s extraordinary talent and star potential and the subsequent success of the opponents he dominated last year, including Texas Red and Calculator. Haven’t seen Baffert this excited about a young horse in a long time. It’ll be interesting to see if the others have caught up with him come March. If he comes back the same as he was and learns to sit off the pace a little, we could have a bon a fide superstar on our hands. Baffert said he expects him to start breezing by the end of the month.

Feb. 3

Returned to the work tab with an easy 3f breeze in :36 1/5 with jockey Martin Garcia aboard. Great to see him finally back in action, and judging from the photos posted on the Internet, he looks spectacular. Question now is how far he can carry his speed and whether he can rate off the pace. Great grandsire Ecliptical is a half-brother to the dam of Preakness winner Codex, Oaklawn Handicap winner Eminency, and $960,000 earner Talakeno, a long-distance grass horse. Traces to the best of Fred Hooper blood – Tri Jet , winner of the Whitney in track-record time and Hawthorne Gold Cup, and Crozier, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap, second in the Kentucky Derby to Carry Back, and the sire of Hall of Famer Precisionist.

Feb. 10

Baffert said the champ likely will make his 3-year-old debut in the March 14 Rebel Stakes. He turned in his second 3f work, going in :36 2/5 and galloping out a half-mile. As with the other horses making just two starts, there is no room for error and everything will have to go perfectly. We also have to see if he can win from off the pace, so there are still plenty of questions. He is only up this high because he may be freaky talented. His tail-female line is all Fred Hooper breeding and that is unlike any other family. It is an entity unto itself, and while many Hooper horses have been brilliant, they haven’t established any line of note
Feb. 17

I have to admit I’m not entirely comfortable with anyone at No. 1 after Texas Red’s setback and after prolonged thought and meticulous scrutiny I decided to go by raw talent and the potential to be something very special. He looked super breezing a half in :47 2/5, out in 1:00 2/5. He galloped out so strongly, the clockers gave him a 5f work even though Baffert said all along he was working a half. Watching his last two wins, it’s really amazing just how flawless he is in every respect. He does everything so smoothly and effortlessly, has tremendous extension to his stride, and never deviates an inch off his path . From the head-on, his legs are perfectly placed beneath him, he keeps his head as straight as can be, and even when Victor Espinoza for some reason hit him 10 times right-handed in the Del Mar Futurity with a clear lead, he remained dead straight on his course. I also like the way he tosses his ears back and forth throughout the race as if he’s having a good time out there and using little energy. So although he is living on the edge with no room for even the slightest setback, I’ll take a chance that he will return as good as he was last year and will show he can rate off the pace the way he rates on the lead.
Feb. 24

With Texas Red’s setback, an ugly Fountain of Youth, and not having any horse excite me so far, I have to focus on potential and the hope that American Pharoah will return the same special horse we saw last year. And working 6f in 1:12 2/5 in only his fourth work back is encouraging. You know you have a special young horse when as early as March of his 2-year-old year the farm owner/trainer watches him work, realizes the responsibility of training such a special horse, and says to the owners as the horse is galloping out, “Figure out who you're gonna send him to and get him outta here.” As for his layoff, he certainly wouldn’t be the first horse to make his 3-year-old debut in March and go on to win the Derby, and judging by the way he’s looked in the morning, you have feel that his injury is behind him and will be a non factor. Of course, he still has to show he can rate off horses, but there is no indication he won’t be able to adjust to any pace scenario. With him there is the hope of seeing great things. Until he proves otherwise or someone comes along to get me excited, I have to keep him on top.
March 3
Continues to train like a champ, drilling a sharp 7f in 1:23 4/5, galloping out a mile in 1:38. Just watching him work is a treat, as he makes a striking appearance even galloping to the post and moves with such efficiency and balance he shows all the signs of being something special. Of course, he still has to go out there and show it, traveling all the way to Oaklawn Park and racing over a strange surface, albeit one that has his trainer’s name written all over it. Depending on how he handles the track, it’s either go 4 weeks to the Arkansas Derby and 3 weeks to the Kentucky Derby or 3 weeks to the Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass or Wood Memorial and 4 weeks to the Derby. There is no doubt Baffert will have him razor-sharp and dead-fit for the Rebel, where he will have the services of a pacesetter in Take Charge Brandi, which would be just what he needs to get him to sit back behind a horse for the first time.
March 10
I know, what’s he still doing at No. 1 when Dortmund and Carpe Diem looked so good? Well, I’ve come this far with him, why not just wait another week and see what happens in the Rebel and go from there, especially after his jaw-dropping 6f work in 1:10 3/5 that had Baffert hurling out superlatives. Plus, I couldn’t separate Dortmund’s and Carpe Diem’s performances, they both ran such big races. Look, if he runs off the screen in the Rebel, there’s going to be a traffic jam trying to get on his bandwagon, so what’s the rush to drop him now? If his sensational works don’t translate to what he does on Saturday, then no problem putting Dortmund or Carpe Diem as the new No. 1. Both deserve the top spot. But until he proves me wrong I still think he has superstar potential and does everything like a special horse. But until they actually make the transition from 2 to 3, especially rebounding from an injury, there’s always going to be a big fat question mark. We’ll find out one way or the other soon enough.
March 17
Forget the slow fractions. This was all about visuals, and it was pure poetry. You cannot ask a horse to look any smoother, while generating more power; skipping and bounding over the ground with flawless strides, perfectly erect, legs under him perfectly, ears straight up, whip put away. This was a textbook video of what a Thoroughbred is supposed to look like in action, and he did it after springing a shoe pretty good after bobbling at the start over a wet, heavy track that was getting wetter and heavier as the day went on. A photo shows the shoe a good inch or more separated from the hoof, so he definitely dodged a bullet. Some will downplay the race because of the slow fractions (1:15 1/5), but slow is actually what you want to see from him right now, not some ridiculously fast speed figure. We know he’s fast; it’s all about relaxing and harnessing that speed to go 1 1/4 miles. And remember, although the Razorback, which drew a classy field, was run four-fifths faster, with a much faster three-quarters, that was a stretch-long duel between two talented older horses carrying four pounds less than American Pharoah, and they came home in :32 1/5 compared to :30 2/5 for American Pharoah, who was never really asked to run. The questions now are, how much did he get out of the race, and do we know if he is capable of sitting behind horses? You know Baffert, of all trainers, will make sure he’s dead fit, considering his long works are faster than most horses run in races. And any horse who relaxes on the lead the way he does, flicking those ears back and forth, should be able to settle anywhere. He never pulls and just outruns his horses with that high cruising speed. The ideal scenario now would be to see him tested to some degree in the Arkansas Derby, but it’s not 100 percent necessary as long as he gets enough out of it to move him forward.
March 24
Ever wonder why his tail is so short? Well, he actually had part of it bitten off by another horse while playing in the field. Now his tail is all the other horses see of him and he’s made sure no one gets close to it. But a little company in the Arkansas Derby might be nice just to see how he handles it. Winning Colors, Spend a Buck and War Emblem had success going solo, but it doesn’t happen very often in the Kentucky Derby, and it’s still not the ideal way to win the race, because you never know when you’re going to have unexpected crazy speed in there, like a Palace Malice, Songandaprayer, and Spanish Chestnut. Look, we know he’s classy and cool and exceptionally fast, but it’s always good to have a backup weapon in the Derby in case your main weapon backfires. On another note, do the people who constantly ask Baffert who is better, American Pharoah or Dortmund, really expect an answer other than one he gives every time -- that is like asking which of his kids he likes more. Do they really expect him to answer that?
March 31
Guess what 3-year-old has the fastest Brisnet late pace figures in his last two starts? No, it’s not a late closer as one might expect, it is American Pharoah, whose late pace figs of 109 and 108 indicate that this colt, despite being a frontrunner at this point, does his best running late, by far. The only 3-year-old with a single faster late pace figure is Far From Over (112) in the Withers, but while Pharoah’s early and middle pace figures are basically in the mid 80s, Far From Over’s early and middle pace figs were 66 and 78. So, what we have is a horse who is not a speedball, but one who can maintain a high cruising speed on the lead and then come home fast. That bodes well for American Pharoah not being a need-the-lead type. He should be able to adjust to any kind of early pace and still close off it, much like a Barbaro type. Of course, it would be ideal if he could show that in the Arkansas Derby to remove all doubt. He just needs a real speed horse in there to provide a target for him. Let’s just say with all the speed horses and stalkers dominating the Kentucky Derby trail, he better be able to come from off the pace. He did turn in another spectacular work, zipping 5f in :58 3/5, second fastest of 88 works on the tab.
April 7
With all the huge performances this week, does his body of work, running style, and pedigree combined warrant the No. 1 spot? Probably not. But is he freaky good with superstar potential? He very well could be. And that is why he has to remain on top, at least until next week when it’s his turn to show off his talents. With top-class stars like Dortmund, Carpe Diem, and several others breathing down his neck for the top spot, he has to win the Arkansas Derby and do it impressively, otherwise body of work, running style, and pedigree will come into play and possibly expose him as a very fast and talented colt, but not Kentucky Derby material. With that said, he still gives every indication of being something very special and until he proves otherwise, I feel compelled to keep him up on that No. 1 pedestal, despite any factors that might compromise his ability to win on May 2. So far, all the pieces of the 3-year-old puzzle have come together beautifully, and now we have one more important piece to put in place before we get the full picture. Once again, he turned in a brilliant distance work, going six furlongs in a bullet 1:11 3/5, out 7f in 1:24 4/5, fastest of 25 works on the tab. With fellow Zayat horse, the enigmatic Mr. Z, being considered for the Arkansas Derby, it would give him a much-needed target to run at, but Mr. Z has proven not only to be a fighter, but an erratic stretch runner, so hold your breath if American Pharoah comes up on his outside down the lane.
April 14
He had to win the Arkansas Derby and win impressively to keep that superstar aura that has surrounded him since last fall. His well of talent is bottomless and he just keeps reaching new heights of sheer brilliance with every performance. And now we learn that he can rate behind horses, which makes him all the more formidable in a year loaded with talented 3-year-olds. Watching it live, I would have preferred if Espinoza had ridden him out to the wire and not eased him to such a degree, but after further viewing it was apparent that had he not eased him to a gallop, he would have won by 15 lengths in 1:47 and change and that might not have been in his best interests with the Derby coming up in three weeks. What was impressive was his ability to rate kindly, while tracking brisk opening quarters of :22 3/5 and :23 1/5 and still come home his final eighth in :12 2/5, despite being eased to a crawl with his ears straight up. Although his time was three-fifths slower than older horses in the Oaklawn Handicap, that winner was hard-ridden to the wire, and on top of that, American Pharoah was carrying six more pounds. With his 105 Beyer speed figure, he has now run four consecutive triple-digit Beyers. The only question left is how he will stand up to a challenge, as he has never been battle-tested. Who knows what an athlete will do after a series of strolls in the park and then having to slug it out against some tough heavyweights, especially his own stablemate Dortmund, an intimidating and proven street fighter. Then again, he may not need to be battle-tested if he is as scary good as he looked on Saturday.
April 21
He shipped to Churchill right after the Arkansas Derby, so he will have a good deal of training over the track, much more so than Dortmund who will arrive April 26, not that it will make a whole lot of difference in the long run. Looking again at his pedigree, remember, his broodmare sire’s dam is a half-sister to Shared Belief and his great-grandsire Ecliptical is a half-brother to the dam of Preakness winner Codex. And his broodmare sire traces to one of Darby Dan’s top classic families. On the top side, his sire was second in the Kentucky Derby, his grandsire won the Belmont Stakes, and his great-grandsire won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Despite what it seems on the surface, there is plenty of pedigree here to carry him 1 1/4 miles, especially now that he’s shown he can rate behind horses. I have to wonder if there is anything he can’t do.

(Well, it is 3 1/2 months later and there is no more wondering. There isn’t anything he can’t do. The colt has continued to develop and improve and is now a sports phenomenon who has transcended Thoroughbred racing. The nation has not only fallen in love with his rare talents and history-making performances, but his remarkable personality. I can only quote the late, great British racecaller Peter O’Sullevan, who would often say when he witnessed greatness: “What manner of horse is this?”)

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