05/29/2015 2:41PM

'Made to run': The making of American Pharoah

Laura Donnell
Triple Crown hopeful American Pharoah as a newly-turned yearling in January 2013, at Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky.

American Pharoah’s march toward his date with destiny in the Belmont Stakes is very much a team effort. Those at the helm are well known, as Zayat Stables’ homebred champion and dual classic winner is in the hands of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and multiple classic-winning jockey Victor Espinoza. Assisting in the wings is a team that includes assistant trainers Jimmy and Dana Barnes, exercise riders Jorge Alvarez and Martin Garcia, and groom Eduardo Garcia.

But before the colt arrived in the Baffert barn in 2014, there were other equine professionals who gave the Triple Crown hopeful his earliest care and most basic lessons, in the process becoming the first to see that glimmer of promise.

“He always made good grades,” said J.B. McKathan, who with his brother Kevin broke American Pharoah at their training center near Ocala, Fla. “He’s like the quarterback.”

Described as a star student, the colt now serves as a point of pride as he attempts to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

“It’s nice to have had a little piece to play on his journey to development,” said Frances Relihan, farm manager for the former Vinery, which raised the colt in Lexington, Ky. She is now in the same position for the facility’s new owners, Haras Don Alberto. “It’s exciting because in the position I’m in, we see these long hours; we breed the mares; we raise these foals; we [deal with] adversity with weather and these things. It’s really neat when you get to see a foal from the ground up and to see that kind of horse develop. It’s a real thrill.”


Ahmed Zayat launched Zayat Stables in 2005 and quickly began making waves in the bloodstock market with aggressive purchases to stock the operation. Among his early acquisitions was Forefathers, a $680,000 purchase out of the 2005 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling sale and eventually multiple Grade 2-placed.

Zayat thought so highly of Forefathers that in late 2005, he privately purchased his dam, the stakes-winning Lord At War mare Star of Goshen, in foal to Empire Maker, and her daughter Regala Di Trieste, in foal to Gulch, in a package deal from Gary and Betty Biszantz’s Cobra Farm. Star of Goshen’s resulting foal was named Pioneerof the Nile in a nod to Zayat’s Egyptian heritage. The owner entered the colt in the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale but ultimately elected to buy him back for $290,000.

Meanwhile at that 2007 sale, Zayat purchased a Yankee Gentleman filly bred by Brereton C. Jones out of the Woods Edge Farm consignment for $250,000. He named the filly Littleprincessemma after his youngest daughter.

:: BELMONT STAKES: American Pharoah archive | Belmont contenders ::

Pioneerof the Nile was among Zayat’s early standouts, ripping off four consecutive graded stakes wins from 2008 to 2009, taking the Grade 1 CashCall Futurity, Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby for Baffert. He finished second in the Kentucky Derby on a sloppy track to longshot Mine That Bird, then 11th in the Preakness Stakes. He suffered a soft-tissue injury to his left front leg while training that summer and was retired to Vinery for the 2010 breeding season with five wins from 10 starts and more than $1.6 million in earnings.

Meanwhile, Littleprincessemma raced twice as a juvenile under the care of trainer Steve Asmussen. She was sixth in her debut, 9 1/4 lengths behind C. S. Silk, who would later become a Grade 1 winner. She then was 12th with a troubled trip on a sloppy track at Saratoga.

Upon joining Zayat’s broodmare band, Littleprincessemma became one of the mares supporting his young stallions. Barren in her first season to the cover of J Be K, she produced the Maimonides ridgling Xixixi in 2011. He has won 2 of 16 starts, originally racing for Zayat and now for owner Kirk Sheehan.

Littleprincessemma then visited Pioneerof the Nile in his second season at Vinery.

“[Pioneerof the Nile] was a classic-type horse,” Relihan said. “He had a lot of range and size to him. He has a tremendous walk to him. He was a very, very easy-moving horse. [Littleprincessemma] had good bone and good substance and good balance, but she was more of a compact type, which actually is really a nice cross physically with the stallion because the stallion was able to give her a little more range and scope. Certainly, the movement came more from the stallion, but the mare is very important.”

‘An easy horse’

American Pharoah was born the night of Feb. 2, 2012, at Dr. Tom VanMeter’s Stockplace Farm near Lexington, Ky. He and his dam moved to Vinery when he was about 2 months old, and he quickly made an impression.

“I remember calling Mr. Zayat and saying to him, ‘This guy really is a standout,’ ” Relihan said. “He just had a great physical. He had size, he had balance, really good bone, he was correct. He just had a wonderful, wonderful way of going, a great walk to him. And then on top of that, he had a great temperament. He was the foal you’d want to breed. You’d see him in the field, and there was just kind of an ease to him. He really, really had a great, easy stride to him. Even as a foal and a weanling, you could see that.”

At an age when young horses are often accident-prone, American Pharoah avoided trouble.

“What an easy horse to be around,” Relihan said. “There’s often horses that you raise that get in a lot of trouble. They’re the horses that are always coming in with little knocks and bumps and getting into fences and doing different things. But he just cruised on through. He’s the kind of horse you brought in in the morning, he ate his breakfast and went for a nap, and was a pleasure, really.”

‘Made to run’

Vinery owner Tom Simon announced intentions to sell his U.S. properties in the summer of 2012, with horses belonging to the farm’s clients, including Zayat, relocated soon afterward. Pioneerof the Nile has continued his stud career at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky. Meanwhile, the young American Pharoah headed to Taylor Made Farm in Nicholasville, Ky., in early 2013. Among a group of 10 or 11 short yearlings, the colt stood “head and shoulders” above the rest, according to yearling manager John Hall.

“He was that much better-looking,” Hall said. “He was a really good individual. Very forward, always very athletic, he had a great neck and shoulder and was always correct. … He was made to run. He’s what you picture in your mind growing up and being around horses, what you think you want to go out and find.”

Taylor Made yearlings are brought to the barn early each morning and are fed before participating in an individual exercise program – either walking in hand or on a walker. They are groomed in the afternoon and fed again before being turned out in the evening to spend the cooler hours of summer outside. American Pharoah handled the routine with aplomb.

“He was a really kind individual,” Hall said. “He had a great mind and a great way about him. He was a colt where if you went to do something with him, it was like he’s done it before. Very, very intelligent.”

:: View American Pharoah's yearling video via Taylor Made ::

Zayat mainly breeds to race but entered American Pharoah in the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale.

“Taylor Made said this horse is an absolute standout on the farm, and they know that we breed to race, but maybe we should consider putting him in the sale because it will help [market Pioneerof the Nile],” Zayat said.

A few weeks before shipping to the sale, the colt bumped his shin, resulting in a lump that was more cosmetic than anything else.

“He had a little knot just above the fetlock on the front of his shin. It definitely would jump out at you,” Hall said. “There’s no question it scared a lot of people off.”

Zayat bought back American Pharoah for $300,000 via bloodstock agent David Ingordo.

“Somebody’s watching for us, I have to tell you,” the owner said.

‘Ready to pass the baton’

American Pharoah headed on to the McKathans, who have a long-standing relationship with Baffert, having broken dual classic winners Silver Charm and Real Quiet. They also handled Pioneerof the Nile early for the Zayat family.

“[American Pharoah] was a really big, lanky, classy, two-turn-looking horse,” J.B. McKathan said. “He didn’t look anything like a sprinter. He was a really nice horse. Really good bone, very correct.”

The McKathans taught American Pharoah the basics of carrying a rider and acclimated him to their training track, beginning to build his fitness. The colt’s behavior in his early lessons quickly established him as a standout in a crop that also included Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve.

“We had some nice, nice horses last year, and he’s just a little bit more brilliant,” McKathan said. “I can’t explain it, but there’s something to him – a little extra. You like to think you know a nice horse, but Mr. Magoo could have picked out this horse. From the first time he worked, he was extraordinarily fast. We kept trying to slow him down – we were slowing him down – but he was still going really fast. He’s the kind of horse that when he gets out of a gallop, he’s breaking stopwatches. That’s just him. He was always super sound and super happy. He would just cool out perfect and eat his alfalfa and be ready to do it again. Perfect student.”

American Pharoah’s coming-out party was at a private breeze show the McKathans arranged for the Zayats to see their stock, a classy group that included American Pharoah, eventual Grade 2 winner El Kabeir, and eventual multiple Grade 1-placed Mr. Z.

“When he went by, he was just floating,” McKathan said. “He went really fast. I can’t remember the time, but it was like 23.1 [seconds] on my track and 36 and change galloping out. That’s just flying. Our track is set up as a training track. It’s not set up to be fast; it’s set up to get horses fit.

“If I remember right, I said, ‘Okay, Mr. Zayat, get this horse off my farm.’ I was very ready to pass the baton.”

Looking back, moving on

If the breeze show at the McKathans’ farm was graduation day, then one hopes Belmont Stakes Day is a coronation for the colt, who has already passed most tests asked of him with flying colors. After losing his career debut, he has reeled off six consecutive graded stakes triumphs, with a hard-fought win in the Kentucky Derby followed by a romp on a sloppy track in the Preakness Stakes. The prowess he showed while learning his early lessons has served him well along the way.

“He always had a great mind,” said Hall, pointing to how the colt rated kindly in the Derby as an example.

Some of American Pharoah’s earliest supporters will be among the crowd of 90,000 expected to witness his bid for history in the Belmont. The McKathans plan to fly from Florida to New York. Relihan, who made the walkover to the Derby paddock as a guest of the Zayats, also will be in attendance.

“Nerve-wracking and thrilling,” Relihan said. “I think we’re all rooting on him. Personal side apart, I think it’ll be a wonderful thing for racing if he can do it.”