American Pharoah All the Rage Ahead of Triple Crown Champ's Breeders' Cup Finale

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistOctober 30, 2015

Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner American Pharoah, gets a kiss from his owner, Ahmed Zayat after a workout at Belmont Park, Friday, June 5, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. American Pharoah will try for a Triple Crown when he runs in Saturday's 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)
Peter Morgan/Associated Press

Ahmed Zayat—the charismatic Egyptian-by-descent owner of American Pharoah, a 53-year-old entrepreneur and a serial runner-up in the Kentucky Derby (Pioneerof the Nile, 2009; Nehro, 2011; Bodemeister, 2012)—speaks steadily and deliberately with near pitch-perfect enunciation. That is until he starts talking about American Pharoah. At that point the syllables rise and fall for emphasis because he cannot contain the sheer joy, like little geyser burps below the earth's crust to relieve some geothermal energy buried deep below.

"It was an UNbelievable performance," Zayat told me over the phone, "and so WANTed and so inspiring. I could go on and on. It doesn't get old. Every time I'm down I just put on some of his races and instantaneously you see a smile on my face and I'm in a happy mood. It's my therapy."

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Ninety thousand people saw American Pharoah win the Triple Crown in personpeople who hadn't seen a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, who saw so many upset bids at the Triple Crown and who weren't even born until Bill Clinton took office.

The noise, the roar. Zayat's ears still ring from that day in June when American Pharoah became No. 12, stopped time, became a god.

How did American Pharoah do that? What a sleight of hoof we witnessed. To know would be to ruin the very thing. And Saturday, the sorcery that he is capable of will be on display for the last time.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The phenomenal three-year-old colt makes his final start in a pan-fire career that will last a mere 11 races once he heads to the gate for the 31st running of the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.

Gone will be that memorable stride and the ease with which he covers ground. Soon it will all disappear, and left in the dusty clouds kicked up by his feet will be the souvenir betting tickets that returned 10 cents, his spirited Kentucky Derby and the sheer magic of his triumphant run to the history books at Belmont Park.

"Gearing up the champ for his grand finale, I will call it. You want to give him the right sendoff," Zayat said.

Over 30,000 went to Churchill Downs on June 13, 2015; barely two months prior, American Pharoah had won the Kentucky Derby, the first integer in the Triple Crown equation. He wasn't running; he had done enough of that. He merely paraded before the people, posing, ears flicking around like antennae, his gentle nature on display.

"What makes American Pharoah different is the fact that he was able to connect with everybody," Zayat said. "Horse racing fans, the regular public, young toddlers, adults, senior citizens. His persona. He's a kind, gracious horse. Not just brilliantly fast. He has brought back hope. I think the message is hope."

People reached their hands out just to feel what it's like to touch greatness, to put their flesh up against something so warm and soft, yet a body so capable of achieving the impossible.

He was no longer a figment of your imagination. Here he was: Now kneel before him, the most perfectly engineered mammal on the planet. Nothing is as big or as fast, and here is one of the biggest and the fastest, and you can reach right out and touch him. He does exist. The proof is the heat on your palm.

And he wasn't done yet. More people hungered for him.

"When we won the Triple Crown and I gave the word, this is America's Horse," Zayat said. "This is a people's horse. As long as he remains happy and healthy, we'll continue to race him and not retire. Perhaps that's the biggest thing I'm proud of that I was sharing him with the public. Bob Baffert and his crew did an amazing job of opening our barn to everybody, and people felt they were a part of him."

Mel Evans/Associated Press

When Monmouth Park opened its doors for the Haskell Invitational, 60,000 people arrived. American Pharoah was making his return to the track, his first since 90,000 people saw him win the Belmont.

Baffert owns the Haskell Invitational, the $1 million race Pharoah returned to. Baffert had won it seven times before, and though American Pharoah would be the overwhelming favorite, who knew how the cumulative effect of winning the Triple Crown would wear him down? Nobody knew. All people did know was they better get their glimpse, their one shot at seeing a shooting star streak against the Jersey shore.

John Pricci, a longtime turf writer and handicapper, told me, "It was a fun scene at Monmouth. I was there Friday and eyeballed the crowd at a couple of thousand. Reliable people told me that Saturday's was much bigger, which makes sense."

As American Pharoah schooled in the paddock, people flocked to see him.
As American Pharoah schooled in the paddock, people flocked to see him.Mel Evans/Associated Press

Friday would have been for a simple gallop if thousands showed up to see a horse go through basic calisthenics. That number, of course, ballooned to 60,000 by the time the Haskell went off. Fenway Park seats about 38,000 people. Yankee Stadium seats just less than 50,000, Citi Field 45,000, all to watch 18 players knock around for nine innings, maybe four hours.

The jockeys who weren't scheduled to ride in the Haskell came out and watched the race. They knew. For some, this may be the closest they ever get to greatness.

At Monmouth, most of those 60,000 were there to see a horse run 1 miles, which took just 1:47.95.

"It may sound crazy," Pricci said, "but American Pharoah impressed me more at Monmouth considering the manner of the victory, that he went through the rigors of the Triple Crown and was turning back from a mile-and-a-half."

He did it in a hand ride and came within 0.95 seconds of breaking the Haskell record, and he did it toying with the field the way a cat paws at a mouse. After that, Zayat stood above a crowd of rowdy Jersey shore-ians pumping his fists, riling them up, stirring them into a frenzy. The Pharoah once had a following. Now he had an army.

And what lay ahead was the Battle of Saratoga.

Still they came, in greater droves, and for what? Morning gallops? Morning breezes? There was even a hashtag, #Pharoahtoga, pixelating itself across Twitter, Facebook, Insta-whatever.

He arrived at Saratoga from Churchill Downs, 12 hours, stall-to-stall, and when he galloped the Friday before the $1.6 million Travers Stakes, 15,000 people turned out. They filled up Saratoga's grandstand to watch the Triple Crown winner clip off 15-second splits as he galloped a total of 1 ¼ miles.

"I was pretty overwhelmed by everybody and the fans. It was pretty incredible," said Baffert in a release. "I know he's got a big backing and he has a lot of fans, but it just keeps growing and growing and growing. I think it's great. A lot of fans have really been able to follow this horse and latch on to him."

Zayat said he was shopping recently at a department store in London, picking up presents for his family, when a sales clerk approached him and said, "I know you. Are you famous?"

He isn't LeBron James famous, but in certain circles he's as recognizable as any horse owner in the world. "I think I saw you on television," she said.

Zayat wanted to keep looking around the store, though deep down he knew the secret he harbored. He smiled but casually dismissed her. He must have one of those faces, you know?

"No, no, I know you," she insisted. Again, Zayat denied.

"I know who you are! You are the one who won the three!"

"What?" Zayat said.

"The three things! The horse in America! I saw on TV!"

He started laughing, yes, that's me, that's him, American Pharoah, winner of the three. Before Zayat knew it, a herd of sales people swarmed around him.

Saratoga capped attendance at 50,000 for the Travers. Another 50,000 would have shoehorned into the track, but they had to find a bar or restaurant hosting any number of Travers parties through, up, down and around Broadway.

Elbow to elbow on Saratoga's apron for the Travers.
Elbow to elbow on Saratoga's apron for the Travers.Hans Pennink/Associated Press

People at the track wore King Tut headdresses and waved giant, cardboard cutouts of Zayat, Baffert and anyone connected to the horse.

After what seemed like countless hours of time slowing down as it does near a mass of black gravity, American Pharoah finally made his way to the track in full, saddled regalia.

He broke well, but there's a reason Saratoga is called the Graveyard of Champions. Secretariat fell to a horse named Onion. Rachel Alexandra fell to a plucky Persistently. Man o' War lost to Upset, hence the term.

American Pharoah went to the lead and didn't look like the horse who floated over the dirt. He looked like he was running through quicksand and still nearly won. He dug in so hard that you worried for him.

It's not the cheap horses you have to worry about breaking down. When they feel pain, they give up. It's the ones with heart, because when they feel a little pain, they press on. Michael Jordan with the flu. Kirk Gibson with the hammy. Charismatic in the 1999 Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah didn't win this race, nor did he injure himself or break down, but the Graveyard consumed him as it has so many before.

All around were people tearing up their lost betting tickets and throwing them on the ground. People who had grown so accustomed to Pharoah winning were reduced to tears raining from the backstretch to Union Avenue.

The loss, if anything else, brought him down to earth, made him more lovable and earned him more fans, more buzz for the grand finale, the sendoff Zayat so cherishes.

American Pharoah has a Twitter fan page, his own hashtag, with his travel itinerary set. There's even a flight tracker so you could see his plane leave California and land, without trouble, in Kentucky. This account has over 10,500 followers, a tremendous amount for a horse.

He arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, on Tuesday afternoon and is set to take on a field of nine horses in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The people will come, and they will cheer.

"Well, listen," Zayat said. "It's horse racing. I know American Pharoah is READy. He's training AWEsome. He's gained WEIGHT. He is PHARoah. Honestly, if Pharoah is Pharoah, they're all in trouble. He's going to run a big race. He's training really well and we are not in the hype business, but it's horse racing and anything can happen."

This will be American Pharoah's final race. It won't matter where he finishes because what he's accomplished stands on its own on four surefooted hooves. He already did the unthinkable and carried far more than 124 pounds in the process.

Turning for home, American Pharoah rides into the west, into the sunset at Keeneland, where thousands upon thousands will draw power from his electricity and scream to the drumming of his final cavalry charge. Only one question remains: Will he get there first?

Brendan O'Meara writes about horse racing and other sports for Bleacher Report. His work has appeared at the Blood-Horse and Horse Race Insider. All quotes in this piece were obtained firsthand.


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