Behind the Scenes With American Pharoah

With NBC continuing its trip down memory lane by showing American Pharoah's 2015 Preakness Stakes (G1) May 16, I thought we'd also take a trip down memory lane by going behind the scenes of all three Triple Crown races and showcasing some of the more memorable moments.

American Pharoah's journey to possible superstardom began in earnest one morning at the McKathan Brothers Farm in Florida, where he was given his early training. The McKathans - J.B. and Kevin - were putting on a breeze show for the Zayats, showcasing their 2-year-olds. In attendance were representatives from WinStar Farm and several trainers, including Dale Romans and Tony Dutrow.

"We knew American Pharoah was special as soon as we let him do something on the track," said Chris Alexander, who has been with the McKathans for eight years and deals directly with the Zayats. "At the breeze show, everybody was there, and J.B. asked me, ‘When are you bringing up Pharoah?' I said I needed to breeze a couple of sets first, because he needs to be last and be on the racetrack by himself."

Alexander and the McKathans were well aware of the show American Pharoah was about to put on. "Everyone was standing there talking and he came galloping by the viewing stand and we told them this was the best one Mr. Zayat's got," Alexander said. "Then when he broke off at the pole everyone went quiet."

American Pharoah came flying down the stretch with those smooth, magnificent strides and everyone at once knew they were looking at something out of the ordinary.  As he passed the wire, all you could hear was Ahmed Zayat utter an expletive phrase beginning with the word "Holy." As the colt was pulling up, J.B. wasted no time in telling Zayat, "Figure out who you're gonna send him to and get him out of here."

"J.B. turned to me and said, "Chris, get this sucker off the farm right now," Alexander said. "He's too much horse for us to have here. Tammy Fox (Dale Romans' wife) was watching the breeze at the other end of the viewing stand and leaned over and said, ‘Dale, I want that one.' But everyone wanted him. You could gallop him with two fingers, but once you took the rings off and he knew he was working, then he'd be tough. But he'd walk back to the barn and cool out in 10 minutes. Thirty minutes later you'd go to his stall and he was laid out fast asleep. This was after just going out there and working like you couldn't even imagine a horse could work."

Kevin McKathan added, "I've had my hands on a lot of talented horses (including many of Baffert's top horses), but I've never had my hands on a horse this special and this fast."

Although Baffert did not attend the breeze show, he was sent a video of the colt working and immediately contacted Ahmed Zayat and said, "Just remember, the Breeders' Cup is at Santa Anita this year." Before he knew it, American Pharoah was in his barn and life was about to change for the Baffert and Zayat families.


Most of the Preakness horses were saddled in the indoor paddock, and as they headed out to the track, the rain began, getting harder and harder. The track had been sealed before the race, and when they harrowed it just before post time, one would have thought the rain was going to hold off. But before long, sheets of heavy rain pelted the track.

Baffert, his wife Jill, and son Bode took their usual place in front of a TV screen near the entrance to the paddock. The wind began to pick up, with an occasional gust blowing the rain into the paddock. Soon it was a deluge outside.

Jill began getting nervous, especially with the thunder and lightning and with American Pharoah breaking from the inside post and the TV revealing deep standing water right along the rail.

"It's a river on the rail; that's not right," she said. "If he can overcome this and still win, he really is something special."

Baffert added, "That wind is really sharp. This changes the whole picture. But it's too late now, we can't change it." Baffert even starting thinking about the ear plugs he puts in American Pharoah's ears getting waterlogged.

Although Baffert and Jill were concerned with the turn of events, it was up to 10-year-old Bode to instill the confidence everyone had just a few minutes earlier. Bode's concern with the heavy rain was much more simple. "How are we going to get to the winner's circle?" he asked. Jill stayed as far away from that question as possible, not wanting to go there.

Conditions got so bad and so dangerous the fans in the infield had to be evacuated. The scene that just a few minutes earlier was filled with electricity and anticipation had now turned to mayhem. People caught outside resorted to holding folding chairs over their head.

As the field loaded in the gate, Jill, visibly upset, cradled her hands against her face, as if dreading the possibilities that could ensue.

American Pharoah broke well and Baffert was happy to see him and Dortmund running so well. Around the far turn, Divining Rod came charging up along the inside and began closing the gap on American Pharoah, with Dortmund trying to make a run on the outside and taking over second briefly. But he could never sustain the run and dropped out of contention. But Divining Rod was still running strongly and closing in.

"Come on, boy," Baffert urged American Pharoah. "Who is that, the seven?" he asked, referring to Divining Rod. "The seven is right there, too. Uh, oh, come on Pharoah. Come on Pharoah."

As if on cue, American Pharoah, as is his custom, threw his ears up as if letting his followers know he had everything well under control. Espinoza, unlike the Derby, never had to go to the whip, merely waving it a couple of times, as American Pharoah bounded away to a four-length lead at the eighth pole, with Baffert now breaking out in a big smile, knowing Pharoah had it wrapped up. He continued to pour it on, winning as he pleased by seven lengths, while running straight as the proverbial arrow the entire length of the stretch.

"What a horse," an elated and noticeably choked up Baffert said as soon as American Pharoah crossed the finish line. Jill was in tears. Baffert turned to his son and asked, "Bode, you mind getting wet?" At that point, rain or no rain, none of them had any trouble getting to the winner's circle.


So, let the comparisons with Seattle Slew continue. It is still too early from a historical standpoint to actually make that comparison, but there is one person who has the credentials to do so -- Paula Turner, former wife of Slew's trainer Billy Turner. Paula rode Slew and gave him his early training on the farm and then came to New York with him to introduce "Huey" (Slew's nickname) to the track, giving him his first race gallop.

"I came back from that gallop and told Billy, "He's the one. This is the one you've been waiting for," Paula said. "American Pharoah is the only horse who's reminded me of Huey's authoratative command of a race; just daring anyone to come near. His 'try and run with me if you can' show took me right back to Huey. Watching the (Preakness), I commented, 'Now, that's authority; so reminiscent of Slew. American Pharoah looked like he wanted to run off after the finish, which Slew also did when horses tried passing him afterward."


Belmont day began with an unwelcomed surprise, as a steady, and at times heavy, rain fell on Belmont Park. The inside portion of the track was sealed early, with cones being placed about five paths out from the rail. When trainer Kiaran McLaughlin received a report on the track condition, he opted to send Frosted to the training track for his race day training.

Behind Barn 8 were four large RV vehicles, providing a compound-like atmosphere for American Pharoah's owner Ahmed Zayat and his family. Confident all week, Zayat admitted he was concerned for the first time because of the weather and the track condition.

At around 10 a.m., Zayat, who is deeply religious and cannot drive on Saturday because of the Jewish Sabbath, stood at the front end of the RV reciting the Sabbath prayer. In his own way he no doubt was also praying for a safe and clean trip for all the horses.

Soon it was time for family and friends to visit and indulge in helpings of whitefish, lox, bagels, cream cheese, and assorted danish and pastries.

What Zayat feared was a drying out track, which, unlike slop, could make for a testing and demanding surface.

"At this juncture, I'm freaking out," he said. "I'm very anxious, but it's something I can't control."

What Zayat didn't realize, or wouldn't let himself realize, was that the racing gods had already reserved a place for American Pharoah in the history books, and that they would soon bring a pleasant breeze and bright sunshine to help dry out the track. Everything was now in place for a historic afternoon.

Zayat felt somewhat relieved when he was told that Espinoza would be riding the Baffert-trained Sky Kingdom in the mile and a half Brooklyn Invitational to get a feel for the distance and see how the track was playing.

"I didn't know that," Zayat said. "I love it. Now I'm feeling a little better."

Zayat on this morning was once again confronted with an unflattering story in the New York Times (this time on the front page) titled, "Ahmed Zayat's Journey: Bankruptcy and Big Bets," as well as a TMZ-like front page story in the New York Post on Victor Espinoza's personal affairs. Well-timed media ambushes such as these had become commonplace for Zayat since the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).

But on this day Zayat had more important things on his mind and he was trying to think only positive thoughts. He had recently found out a lawsuit against him that had triggered so much unfavorable publicity had been dismissed by a federal judge, and he had just donated $100,000 to the Belmont Child Care Association. So the negative energy that had invaded the euphoria of this once-in-a-lifetime journey had dissipated and he and his family could now focus on the fairy tale ending about to unfold.

"We're on the doorstep of making history," Zayat said, as he finally was able to grab a little whitefish salad. "With us being in this game since only 2006, it is amazing for my family to be having this humbling experience."

Like the previous 11 Triple Crown winners, it is ultimately all about the horse.

"Thank God this horse has not had a single hiccup," he said. "We couldn't afford to have even one. And what's scary is, this horse is getting better. He is more intelligent, and he loves what he does. He's the definition of a Thoroughbred. It's how majestically they move."

As if on cue, there was American Pharoah shown galloping on TVG. "Look at him, we're talking about him right now," Zayat said. "Look at his ears, pricked and happy. His coat, his sheer sounds like I'm making love to somebody. If he wins the Triple Crown, in 10 years everybody will remember American Pharoah; they won't care about the owner."

Affirmed's owner Louis Wolfson had spent nine months in a federal prison for conspiracy and illegal stock sales, and his daughter Marsha reached out to Zayat's wife, Joanne.

"She called me and said, ‘Listen, people tortured my father all through the entire Triple Crown campaign,'" Joanne said. ‘They wrote horrible things about him. I just want you to make sure you enjoy the moment. Don't let the bad guys get involved and ruin it for you.'"


This time, there was nothing that could stop the irresistible force known as American Pharoah and his date with destiny.

We salute all those who tried and failed since 1978. But, finally, we hail a conquering hero, who has broken through those hallowed gates and ascended into immortality.

Nearly four decades of pent up disappointment and frustration came spilling out onto the Belmont Park track June 6, where American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza took a well deserved victory lap after winning the Belmont Stakes Presented by DraftKings (G1)  by 5 1/2 glorious lengths. They were greeted by a wave of cheers that rose to a deafening crescendo, as people in the packed grandstand hugged, kissed, and cried.

Joyce Patci, who does volunteer work at Old Friends retirement facility, was in the grandstand and described the scene best: "When American Pharoah crossed the wire, flowers came cascading down from the upper balcony.  It was like we were in a movie...or dream. I was shaking, the stands were shaking. I hugged two ladies behind us and literally beat up a poor man to my right; a perfect stranger."

The waiting was over, as new generations of racing fans and even those with only a casual interest in the sport finally were able to experience the emotions that come with witnessing a Triple Crown winner.

In the clubhouse, Penny Chenery, owner of Secretariat, and Patrice Wolfson, owner of the last Triple Crown winner Affirmed, sat in adjoining boxes and welcomed a new member to racing's most exclusive fraternity, even though both seemed protective of their own horses, while cognizant of the fact that another had infiltrated that sacred triumvirate of the ‘1970s after so many years.

Both used the exact same short-but-sweet words to describe their feelings: "I'm happy for racing."


At the barn, American Pharoah never left the front of all stall, as Baffert and his family, Espinoza, and dozens of visitors took turns posing for pictures and petting him, while photographing him with the Triple Crown trophy. When Jill walked up to his stall, she hugged him tightly and leaned her head against his neck, remaining in that position for about 30 seconds. No words were needed.

Through it all, the horse never once seemed bothered, and accepted all the petting and hugging and attention as if actually enjoying it. He remained virtually motionless as Baffert, Jill, and all of Baffert's children posed with him for a family portrait. Earlier, in the winner's circle photo, he never turned a hair despite being engulfed by a mass of humanity that could have proved dangerous with another horse.
This brought to an end one of the most magical and exhilarating days of racing ever and certainly one of the most emotional.  

After the race, TV analyst and longtime jockey Richard Migliore, said, "How come I feel like I want to cry?"

The answer is simple according to Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote, "Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears."

And the beauty that was witnessed at Belmont Park as American Pharoah glided down the stretch in isolated splendor will stir the emotions of every "sensitive soul" who can now say they saw a Triple Crown winner.

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