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On November 2, Team Pharoah gave their boy away. 

 

Bob Baffert says goodbye. Photo and copyright, TDN.

Bob Baffert says goodbye. Photo and copyright, TDN.

The great horse stopped twice on his way to the van that would take him to Coolmore-Ashford, where the second chapter of his life begins.

The first time, trainer Bob Baffert could be heard saying, “He doesn’t want to go.”

The second time — which brought tears to my eyes — he looked all around. A long, slow look — at the crimson trees, the roof of the barn, the field stretching beyond. In that moment, I felt American Pharoah saying goodbye to everything that he had ever known.

The Zayat and Baffert families, Jimmy and Dana Barnes, Eduardo Luna, George Alvarez and Smokey the pony now live in another world, a world in which the colt who took them on the ride of their lives is no longer there.

American Pharoah isn’t in the spaces where I knew him either, where I looked for him, where I expect him to be. There is an eerie stillness in my heart. An emptiness where memories glide like chimera.

 

"How many horses would let you do that?" With Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert.

“How many horses would let you do that?” (Mr. Zayat) With Ahmed Zayat and Bob Baffert.

 

Today, I want it all back — the joy, the excitement, the anticipation, the thrills.

And the magic.

Most of all, the magic. And I’m not alone on that score.

 

Here’s one fan, “Lady Ruffian’s” tribute:

 

Another, “Winged Saviors Horse Rescue” said, “Made solely as a tribute to an amazing horse and athlete.”

 

The fans: “ordinary folks” — just like me — trying to articulate what it feels like to witness greatness. To see history enfold right before your eyes and know that you were a part of it:

 

And “Team American Pharoah” — so incredibly gracious and kind, sharing their colt with each one of us, even if we could only come close to him over a screen from afar. Within a year of racing triumphs came stories that buoyed the heart, such as Jill Baffert reaching out to 15 year-old Joshua Griffin, who suffers from cerebral palsy, and wanted more than anything else to meet American Pharoah. (http://www.drf.com/news/bafferts-help-dream-become-reality-one-american-pharoah-fan)

On Sunday, the day after the colt’s BC Classic victory, Joshua’s wish came true. As he reached up to pet the great horse, Pharoah lowered his head, shown here near the end of this clip:

I’m kind of surprised at my own reaction to American Pharoah’s retirement. I’ve witnessed three other Triple Crown winners during my lifetime, beginning with Secretariat. Add to that the retirement of Northern Dancer, Nijinsky, Dance Smartly, A.P. Indy, John Henry, Cigar, Kelso and, more recently, Frankel, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.

In the “old days,” when a horse like Secretariat retired all you got was a 3-minute television clip; then, as a living image, he was gone. There were no video clips or DVD’s, no reports from “down on the farm.” Even the death of the Big Red horse, an icon and a superstar, loved by millions, came out in the newspaper in modest articles, a few lines with a photo.

 

AMERICAN PHAROAH: running from within.

AMERICAN PHAROAH: running from within.

Today, social media allows a sense of immediate contact. In this “context of immediacy,” I have spent many, many hours with Pharoah and his team, listening intently to what Bob Baffert had to say, watching footage of workouts and fan visits, looking at an encyclopedic assembly of photographs, savouring each and every detail about him, from his love of peeled carrots to his “great mind.”

And that mind should not be underestimated. As Aidan O’Brien sees it, a thoroughbred without “mental strength” is “useless.”

For anyone wondering what a “great mind” aka “mental strength” looks like, it finds superb expression in American Pharoah. Even his by-now legendary calm is associated with superior grey cells.

That great mind chooses the softest, gentlest window on the world. Photo and copyright, Casey Phillips. Used with permission.

That great mind chooses the softest, gentlest window on the world. Photo and copyright, Casey Phillips. Used with permission.

But where that mental toughness exploded was at work or in a race. Horsemen talk about hoping their young trainees will “get it.” But you can’t train into an individual what an American Pharoah, or Ruffian, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Man O’ War or Frankel have. The ones with mental toughness just know they can do it and they accomplish pretty much anything asked of them, no matter how exacting. They’re born that way.

KEEN ICE pulls up alongside AMERICAN PHAROAH in the Travers.

KEEN ICE pulls up alongside AMERICAN PHAROAH in the Travers.

You saw incredible strength of mind in American Pharoah’s run in the Travers, coming back against Frosted and then battling Keen Ice to the wire. Even an exhausted Pharoah refused to give up the will to win.

Bob Baffert also talked about his colt’s “mechanics.” I can’t say I love the word choice — we still struggle to let go of our enchantment with the metaphor of the machine to describe efficiency and productivity — but I knew what Baffert meant. He meant this:

Balance. The perfect syncopation. The flow. The ease with which he seems to do it. The arch in his neck, giving you the impression he’s got a choreographic routine in mind, or a ballet step.

Pharoah, you made me joyous.

When I watched you come down the final stretch at Keeneland, I wept. It was as though a river of human feeling had erupted. There you were, coming home, running from within and for the sheer love of it. Extreme beauty hurts your eyes, shocks your mind and opens your heart……and so I beheld you. Startling. Greater than beautiful. A song in my heart.

 

My all-time favourite image of AMERICAN PHAROAH and Victor Espinoza just after the BC Classic.

My all-time favourite image of AMERICAN PHAROAH and Victor Espinoza just after the BC Classic.

 

Bittersweet, watching Pharoah and his team over the last day before the colt was moved to Coolmore-Ashford and into retirement. But as I watched him with Ahmed and Justin Zayat, Bob and Jill Baffert, Jimmy Barnes, Eduardo and George, the thought that came to mind was this:

 ” The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” (Pablo Picasso)

Thank you, Team Pharoah, from the bottom of my heart, for sharing a colt I love so generously. Your spirits are as great as that of your champion.

And thank you, Pharoah, for the magic you made — and then gave away to us all.

 

At AMERICAN PHAROAH's parade at Churchill Downs.

At AMERICAN PHAROAH’s parade at Churchill Downs.

With Jimmy Barnes, Eduardo Luna and George Alvarez.

With Jimmy Barnes, Eduardo Luna and George Alvarez.

With Bob Baffert at Saratoga

With Bob Baffert at Saratoga.

"SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT" Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco. Used with permission.

“SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT” Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco. Used with permission.

 

With the Baffert family.

With the Baffert family.

 

Last words go to Jim Gath of Cave Creek, Arizona:

 

American_Pharoah_BC_Classic_615_X_400_orig

 

Well, well, my son.

You did it. Yeah, you did.

When you stepped onto the track this afternoon, you not only had the eyes of the world upon you, but you had the hopes & dreams of millions on your back. Sometimes, those hopes & dreams can get a little heavy – too heavy, sometimes. And they can’t be carried a mile-&-a-quarter, especially against competitors that are, quite arguably, some of the finest on earth.

But you knew. You’ve known all along. You haven’t bragged. You haven’t stomped & strutted. You haven’t gotten headstrong. We could see it in your eyes & in your demeanor. You knew that, today, you would not only go out on top – the very top – but you would do it with authority. You would run for the love of motion, for the love of running. For the love of those to whom you mean so much.

You knew that you’d break on top. That you would go to the early lead. That you would toy with the others going down the backside & around the far turn. And you also knew that, coming out of that final turn & heading for home, you would be by yourself. All by yourself. You, running against nothing but history.

You knew that you’d take the others’ hope away.

And, then, like an earth-bound Pegasus, you began to fly. And while the others were straining every muscle in their precious bodies, you simply laughed & stretched your legs & romped your way into that rarified air that is reserved for those who have done what no other ever has.

You looked like you were having the time of your life out there. Hell, son – you didn’t even break a sweat! And seeing you & Victor giggling together, coming back after you’d galloped out – well, son – that was just about the sweetest thing I ever did see.

You are now one of a kind.

The only horse ever to have won the Grand Slam.

I’ll miss seeing you flying down the stretch & across the finish line. I’ll miss seeing you in the Winner’s Circle. I’ll miss seeing the love that surrounds you by everyone you live & work with.

But what I & many others will carry with us is your inspiration.

You’ve inspired us to remain calm & serene. You’ve inspired us to know in our hearts that we can do whatever we put our minds to – if we want it bad enough. You’ve inspired us to see, unequivocally, that actions speak louder than words. That hopes & dreams can be achieved. And you’ve inspired us to see that life is to be embraced & loved & enjoyed.

That’s right, son.

You not only ran like the wind, today.

You carried millions of us along with you.

Yes, you did that.

Yeah, you did.

And, for that, we shall be forever grateful.

 

(Author Jim Gath is a horseman who works at Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary (http://tierramadrehorsesanctuary.org) and whose writing about American Pharoah is as moving as the feeling that drives it.)

 

 

 

NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

 

 

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We’ve been here many, many times before and this year it’s all about American Pharoah, whose misspelled name has only made his wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness more distinctive.

The delight and the doubts have dominated the press in North America since Zayat Stables’ American Pharoah began his Triple Crown bid, first by winning the Kentucky Derby and then by romping to a Preakness victory in the slop, winning by a margin only equalled by Smarty Jones 11 1/4 victory in the 2004 Preakness (above).

But then came the Belmont…..and the undefeated Smarty, who had won every heart along the way, suffered his first — and only — career defeat. To say that it was a heartbreaker would be an understatement.

It’s 2015, and here we go again.

And what can be studied to ascertain whether or not American Pharoah’s (AP) chances in a dwindling field are better than that of a champion like the great Smarty Jones? Truthfully, no analysis can be foolproof which is one of the reasons that horse racing worldwide still brims with anticipation, hope and dreams of glory.

There are a number of complex factors that will determine the outcome on June 6th and how they interrelate is where the mystery lies.

First, there is the colt himself — how tired is AP? After all, as E. P. Taylor who owned and bred Northern Dancer observed, ” If you run them enough times, they get beaten…A horse can’t tell you how he’s feeling…” And the “fatigue factor” would arguably be less relevant if the Derby and Preakness winner was going up against colts who had run in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. But he isn’t. In the Belmont, he’ll meet up with colts who are fresher, who’ve had time to rest and work up to the Belmont. AP’s had three weeks.

AMERICAN PHAROAH shown after his Preakness win.

AMERICAN PHAROAH shown after his Preakness win.

 

Then there are the bloodlines and what these might cough up in terms of indicators. AP’s bloodlines are superb on his sire line. In fact his grandsire, Empire Maker, trained by the legendary Bobby Frankel, was himself the spoiler when he won the 2003 Belmont to quash Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid:

Empire Maker had been beaten by Funny Cide in the Derby that year, but skipped the Preakness before running in the Belmont. He was a fresher colt going in, but it’s impossible to overlook his bloodlines: Unbridled (Mr. Prospector sire line) out of the fabulous mare, Toussaud, by El Gran Señor (Northern Dancer). And Empire Maker, who stands in Japan now, has thrown a hailstorm of champions from his American foal crops, including AP’s sire, Pioneerof the Nile, Eclipse champion (2011-2013) Royal Delta and champions Sky Kingdom, In Lingerie, Grace Hall, Emollient, Bodemeister and Acomas. Pioneerof the Nile looks to be on his way to following in Empire Maker’s steps, but it’s still too early to be certain. Often, though, it takes a generation for a sire or a dam to produce a superstar like AP, win or lose on June 6. And Empire Maker has the goods to do it.

The handsome and prepotent EMPIRE MAKER.

The handsome and prepotent EMPIRE MAKER.

Of course, AP is not the only colt going into the Belmont with a great pedigree. There is the sensational Mubtaahij, who appears to like the Belmont surface and is by the hot sire, Dubawi, out of Pennegal by Pennekamp, himself a sire who showed brilliance on the turf — winning the 2000 Guineas, Prix de la Salamandre, Dewhurst and Prix Djebel, among 6 of 7 lifetime victories. If our “might skip a generation” breeding axiom kicks in here, then Mubtaahij is doubly-blessed. His dam is a Blue Hen in her own right — and let’s keep in mind that it’s the dam that hands on the powerful X in Mubtaahij’s genetic profile.

MUBTAAHIJ working at Belmont. Photograph and copyright, Emily Gricco.

MUBTAAHIJ working at Belmont. Photograph and copyright, Emily Gricco.

 

Another serious contender in the Belmont is Frosted. He’s by America’s arguably best sire, Tapit (AP Indy) out of a Deputy Minister mare, Fast Cookie. What’s interesting about Frosted is that he carries Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew on both sides of his fourth generation. And that can’t be bad. Other strong pedigrees are found in Materiality (his sire is Preakness & Belmont Stakes winner, Afleet Alex/BM sire, Langfuhr) and Keen Ice, a son of the mighty Curlin, who certainly will get the distance.

The gorgeous FROSTED has the pedigree to match. Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco.

The gorgeous FROSTED has the pedigree to match. Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco.

KEEN ICE at work over the Belmont track. Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco.

KEEN ICE at work over the Belmont track. A son of the mighty CURLIN, he has what it takes to get the distance. Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco.

 

A factor that looms large is that of the jockeys.

AP keeps his regular rider, Victor Espinoza, who is no stranger to pressure. He rode the last Triple Crown hopeful, California Chrome, in the 2014 Belmont where the colt finished out of the money, overtaken by much fresher horses. In 2002, Espinoza was astride the Baffert-trained War Emblem, but the colt stumbled coming out of the gate and never really recovered. So Espinoza knows the hype and knows the track; hopefully, he’ll ride at least one race on June 6th prior to the Belmont to get the feel of the track.

Mubtaahij will be missing his regular rider, Christophe Soumillon, and some are speculating that Soumillon’s decision to drop the ride (because of a previous commitment) speaks loud about the colt’s Belmont chances. However, the talented son of Dubawi gets the services of talented Irad Ortiz Jr. Ortiz has won a Breeders’ Cup and knows the Belmont track. Kent Desormeaux and Joel Rosario ride Keen Ice and Frosted, respectively, and both can be counted on to come up with sound performances. The great Mike Smith rides the Nick Zito-trained Frammento and these two are a formidable combination: over the years, American racing fans have learned to never count Zito out.

One of the very best: trainer Nick Zito brings FRAMMENTO into the Belmont.

One of the very best: trainer Nick Zito brings FRAMMENTO into the Belmont.

 

Then there’s the matter of the track itself. Although Saratoga has the reputation of being “the graveyard of champions,” in North America every true racing fan knows that the real graveyard is the Belmont, aka “Big Sandy.” To quote the pre-eminent correspondent of American racing, Steve Haskin, writing in Blood-Horse on June 1:

“…the fact is, many jockeys who don’t have experience at Belmont Park, especially going 1 1/2 miles, get lost on those sweeping turns, with the far turn being what I call the turn of no return. Once you make a mistake on that turn, especially going that far, there is no recovering from it.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but you do not want to get caught wide on the first turn and you certainly don’t want to go into the second turn wide. At Belmont, the ideal trip is to remain closer to the rail (if it is playing fair), then ease out nearing the quarter pole or waiting for an opening on the inside. Going wide at the five-sixteenths pole or quarter pole is not a big deal. It is going into the turn wide that leaves horses rubber-legged after turning for home, as they are forced to lose ground for a very long time while negotiating that seemingly endless turn.

…As far as staying on the rail, that is going to be up to Bob Baffert. The great John Nerud has always said the key to Belmont is knowing the track on that day and watch how the track is maintained the days leading up to the race. And he’ll be able to tell by watching all the races run on that Friday and of course on Saturday. According to Nerud, it all depends on what the crew does with the cushion. If they remove a good part of the cushion on the inside and dump it 20-25 feet out from the rail, you want to get on that rail and stay there, especially from the five-sixteenths pole to the eighth pole.. If they leave the cushion alone, because of the pitch of the track, it likely will be slower down on the inside.”

(See more at: http://cs.bloodhorse.com/blogs/horse-racing-steve-haskin/archive/2015/06/01/memo-to-victor-don-t-let-belmont-park-beat-you.aspx#sthash.q752Ur2V.dpuf)

belmont park_tc

 

Last, but not least, is the matter of statistics, those supposedly factual indicators of what a colt has got, pedigree-wise, and therefore, what he should do in a classic, 1.5 mile/12f race like the Belmont Stakes.

To help those new to the business of handicapping, we need to stress that both the Dosage Index (DI) and Centre of Distribution (CD) of any thoroughbred are, in actuality, trends used by breeders more than “facts” per se. What we mean by this is that both DI and CD are attempts to consolidate pedigree information along the lines of stamina and speed influences. The CD and DI of a thoroughbred are tied to the influences of chef-de-race stallions found in a horse’s pedigree over the first 4 generations.

But influences are just that and no more than that — even the great Secretariat’s speed-stamina profile (20-14-7-9-0) did not quite capture what he showed us on the track!

A thoroughbred’s Dosage Profile (DP), from which its DI and CD derive, is calculated based on the number of stamina-speed sire influences in a pedigree. There are five categories: Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid and Professional, with “Brilliant” denoting a preference for shorter distances (speed influence) and “Professional,” longer distances (stamina influence). Horses classified as “Classic” have an almost-equal speed-stamina ratio. The numbers assigned in all 5 categories (even if 1 or more are 0) constitute the DP. Then, through a numerical ponderation formula, the DI and CD are calculated and they indicate a trend represented by a ratio of stamina-to-speed influences that may (or may not) indicate the conditions under which a horse does best. The higher the DI or CD, the greater the speed influence.

(In fact, when we look at the CD’s of the 11 Triple Crown winners, we see just how misleading this kind of information can be if used as the sole criteria for picking a Triple Crown winner: Sir Barton @ 1.00, Gallant Fox @ 0.57, Omaha @ 0.75, War Admiral @ 0.52, Count Fleet @ 0.25, Whirlaway @ 0.10, Assault @ 0.46, Citation @ 0.04, Secretariat @ 0.90, Seattle Slew @ 0.68 and Affirmed @ 0.55. Then add, for good measure, Man O’ War @ 1.17, Alydar @ 1.10, Little Current @ 0.22 or the fabulous Smarty Jones @ 1.00 and one sees that while the CD is a useful indicator of the ratio of speed-to-stamina in an individual’s pedigree, it can also prove very dodgy for punters!)

AP comes in with a CD of 0.88, meaning that his speed influence is presumably more dominant than stamina; Mubtaahij has a CD of 0.00, showing a distinct speed-stamina imbalance that should favour stamina over speed. At 0.64, Keen Ice shows a relatively balanced speed-stamina influence; and Frosted shows a CD of 0.67. The average CD for 12 furlongs (the distance of the Belmont Stakes) is 0.43. And this is where the worm-hole that can be statistics opens up: none of the colts mentioned here compare favourably with the ideal of 0.43. But why is that? Probably because they’re babies with limited races under their belts, making it hard to assess them against a statistic that takes no account of the number of races those individuals used to reach this statistic had run.

Too, we would note that in comparing the respective DP’s of Frosted, Keen Ice, Mubtaahij and AP, the two with the most speed-stamina balance and therefore, using this theory, the most inherited Classic potential are Frosted and Keen Ice. But, again, what’s missing is the time it might take any of these youngsters to reach their Classic potential.

American Pharoah shown working at Churchill Downs pre-Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah shown working at Churchill Downs shortly before he shipped to Belmont.

So….can American Pharoah, a brilliant colt at both two and three, give America its first Triple Crown winner since 1978? Having watched him through this year and last, we know that one thing is certain: he will do his best on June 6th. That’s the kind of honest, hard-working colt he is and it’s doubtful he knows any other way of being.

But the result on June 6th? There are no absolutes.

If the factors align for colt and jockey — from how the track plays to fatigue vs. freshness to what’s bred in the bone — then, when the gates spread and Big Sandy opens its arms, welcome all of these equine athletes….and the possibility of a Triple Crown champion.

AMERICAN PHAROAH with HOF trainer, Bob Baffert who says of his champion, "He is just the sweetest horse." Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco.

AMERICAN PHAROAH with HOF trainer, Bob Baffert who says of his champion, “He is just the sweetest horse.” Photo and copyright, Emily Gricco.

 

SPECIAL THANKS

…to gifted photographer, Emily Gricco, who generously gave THE VAULT permission for the use of her images of the Belmont contenders. If you love great photography, catch Emily on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

 

NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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