By Michele MacDonald
It takes serene confidence or brash chutzpah for a breeder to turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars for a yearling, particularly a colt by a sire whose breeding shed prowess is unknown out of an unplaced mare whose only other foal has not started.
That is how likely Kentucky Derby favorite American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) could have been described when he was led into the ring as Hip 85 at the Humphrey S. Finney Pavilion during the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga selected yearling sale.
But for breeder Ahmed Zayat, there was no hesitation or doubt.
He sent the colt to the sale with a steely resolve not to take anything less than $1 million, even though sire Pioneerof the Nile (Empire Maker) was unproven at the time and had entered stud with a modest $20,000 fee. Zayat just had the feeling that this colt was something out of the ordinary, and he didn’t want to part with him.
“We didn’t get the action that we needed, therefore I said, ‘Why am I putting this horse here? If I’m not getting the kind of reception that we thought we would, I’m taking him home. I don’t care, I’ll buy him back,'” recalled Zayat, who instructed agent David Ingordo to secure the colt on his behalf for any price less than $1 million.
When the hammer fell at $300,000, American Pharoah still belonged to Zayat Stables.
In some ways, it was an eerie case of déjà vu: Zayat had felt exactly the same way about Pioneerof the Nile, and the owner had bought back that homebred for $290,000 at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sale.
“Sometimes, we have been extremely fortunate and lucky,” Zayat reflected. “It wasn’t a matter of price (with Pioneerof the Nile); I saw him in the ring and said, ‘What I am I doing here?'”
“I don’t know what to tell you-somebody upstairs is watching,” he exclaimed. “With these horses I took to the sale, I either chickened out or had sellers’ remorse. We’re not being geniuses here; it’s pure luck, or maybe we are blessed. Who knows?”
Both Pioneerof the Nile and American Pharoah have turned into the best kind of blessings any breeder or owner could wish for in their prayers.
Twice a Grade 1 winner who finished second in the Kentucky Derby but was retired in July of his sophomore season with a soft tissue injury, Pioneerof the Nile-who was Zayat’s first homebred Grade 1 winner-now is one of the hottest young stallions in North America.
While at the time American Pharoah was offered at Saratoga it was not clear how Pioneerof the Nile’s offspring were going to develop, he finished up that year as North America’s second-ranked freshman sire by progeny earnings and then was leading second-crop sire of 2014. The WinStar stallion now stands as leading third-crop sire, and his fee has tripled to $60,000, with current demand such that no-guarantee seasons are being offered at even higher prices.
A passionate owner who speaks of his horses with great enthusiasm, his voice rising in a rapid-fire cadence and his words often sprinkled with adjectives, Zayat said of Pioneerof the Nile:
“I always believed in him. We got very spoiled because he was almost the first home horse. Imagine your first homebred horse a Grade 1 winner that later became a serious classic contender. For me, I’ve always had a lot of emotion and attachment toward the horse.”
Zayat retained a significant ownership interest in Pioneerof the Nile when he went to stud and the owner supported the horse with mares. He had more than a dozen offspring of the stallion in 2013 when American Pharoah was a yearling, and he decided after encouragement from the team at Taylor Made Sales that the exceptional bay colt produced by Littleprincessemma (Yankee Gentleman) might be able to make a statement at Saratoga and boost his sire’s stock.
From very early in his life, American Pharoah had impressed almost everyone who had a hand on him. Foaled at Tom VanMeter’s Stockplace Farm outside Lexington, the colt was sent with his dam to Vinery that summer.
Frances Relihan, who was managing Vinery at the time and who still oversees the property as the manager for Don Alberto Corp., which bought the farm in October 2013, was the first person who pointed out the colt to Zayat as “special.”
“She was the first one ever to see an air of specialness in him,” said Zayat, adding that he has invited Relihan to join his team in the walk over to the paddock at Churchill Downs on Derby day.
In December, as a weanling, American Pharoah went to Taylor Made Farm, where from that time until he left for Saratoga, he received excellent marks from the entire staff.
“He was a horse that when he came in, we immediately liked him a lot, and there were a lot of nice horses that came in the same group, and some of them had more pedigree than he did at that point. But he was the one that physically just always stood out. He had that ‘it’ factor that you can’t really describe, but when you see it, you know it,” recalled Mark Taylor, Taylor Made vice president of marketing and public sales.
“(Taylor Made yearling manager) John Hall described it-and he worked real closely with (American Pharoah) the whole time-he said he was almost like an old soul; everything you introduced him to he just didn’t really turn a hair. It was like he had been doing it his whole life,” Taylor continued.
“And he had just this unbelievable walk on him-you know when horses kind of unhinge their shoulder and just really flow when they walk. I know when I was over there at the barn where he was, the Dayjur Barn, and I was going through all the horses in that barn, I said if you are going to take one (of Zayat’s yearlings) up to Saratoga, this is the horse, because he’s just got this walk that the more you look at him, the more you are going to love him.”
The strong assessments from Taylor Made convinced Zayat that it would be worth sending the colt to Saratoga since he could boost Pioneerof the Nile’s status with breeders, owners and buyers.
“Taylor Made is one of the largest boarding farms in Kentucky, and when they come and tell you that we think he is the best foal on the entire farm, it’s saying something,” Zayat said. As fate would have it, American Pharoah bumped an ankle about a month before the sale, causing a small blemish and some swelling.
“We don’t know whether he got cast or whether he stepped on himself or what he did, but he came up with some filling on his right front ankle,” Taylor said. “It wasn’t a big deal. He never took an unsound step, never was lame, but if you looked at it, it was the first thing that caught your eye.”
Taylor Made consulted with veterinarians and with Zayat, and basically let “Mother Nature take its course.
“By the time we got to Saratoga, I would say it was 75 percent resolved, but there was a little cosmetic blemish on the front of the ankle. It was probably about the size of maybe two marbles, just a little kind of bubble,” Taylor said. “We had all the vets check it out and everyone said this is absolutely nothing, he’s not sore on it, he’s not lame, it’s not involving any structures-it is just like a pimple on a kid’s face on prom night, it’s unfortunate it happened, but it’ll be gone by next week. Prom pictures might get screwed up, but that’s kind of the way it is at a horse sale. You’re trying to be as pretty as you can be on the right day, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”
Everyone had a chance to buy the colt when he went into the ring, but no one came close to the money Zayat wanted.
“As it turned out, he ended up not hitting his reserve, not because people didn’t love him, but because Mr. Zayat fell in love with him more than everybody else did,” Taylor said.
“I know we had a lot of live money over $200,000, that was the pulse I got,” he added. “(American Pharoah) really was special. … It’s easy to look back in retrospect and say why didn’t (people pay more), but you’ve got to remember that Pioneerof the Nile didn’t stand for a ton of money and he hadn’t had a lot of runners yet (at that time) and people weren’t going to go crazy about something that was unproven.”
Zayat’s confidence in the colt and all the good things he had heard about him since the time he was a foal seemed immediately validated when American Pharoah began his early training at the McKathan Brothers Training Center in Florida.
“Once he got to the McKathans, once he started training, I started saying, ‘Oh my God-if he’s not a stakes horse, then I know nothing,” Zayat related. “I recall J. B. (McKathan) told me, ‘Mr. Z, this is the fastest son-of-a-you-know-what that I’ve ever put a saddle on.’
“When he started breezing, honestly we were scared. This horse was like two seconds faster than anything else,” he added. “He was doing everything so easy. We could not believe how fast he was going-and he was not even trying. It was insane. Then when (trainer Bob) Baffert got him, he said, ‘Ahmed, this is the fastest two-year-old I ever got.'”
The rest of the story is well known; American Pharoah lost his juvenile debut but has been uncatchable since then, annexing three Grade 1 stakes among his four victories and standing over his generation as champion juvenile male of 2014.
Despite the fact that the colt did not light up the board at Saratoga, Taylor said his saga leading to the Triple Crown trail has played out just the right way.
“At the end of the day, some things happen for a reason and this was one of them. I think this horse was meant to run for (Zayat),” said Taylor, who believes American Pharoah will win the Kentucky Derby. “Right now, I’m thrilled (Zayat) didn’t get him sold because if he had sold him for $300,000 and the horse had done what he has done, I’d probably be getting a call from Mr. Z every day about it. I’m glad it worked out the way it did. It was a short-term deflation for a long-term great story.”
“Am I thrilled that I have him? Absolutely,” Zayat declared. “I never intended to sell him except to help my stallion, who was unknown at that point.”
Zayat is both hopefully buoyant, based on what he is hearing about his horse, and realistic about the Kentucky Derby.
“When you have a clocker like Gary Young saying, ‘This is the best horse I’ve seen since Secretariat’-it’s ludicrous for somebody to say that, but this is the kind of hype that I’m hearing right now,” Zayat said.
“This is all a crapshoot to me, the Derby. Once you open the gate, it’s not typical that the best horse always wins. But this horse, regardless of what he does in the Derby or not, it seems that he is he breathes a different air.”
Zayat said he owns about 140 horses, including mares, foals, yearlings and horses in training. While American Pharoah is certainly the star of the moment, Zayat has the remarkable distinction of owning three likely starters in the Kentucky Derby, with Mr. Z (Malibu Moon) and El Kabeir (Scat Daddy) also set to carry his blue and gold colors.
“You know you are doing something right if you have a horse in the Derby. You know you are doing something more than right when you have two. You know it’s something crazy when you have three,” he said. “We are beyond glad, honored, humbled.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
With Kentucky Derby fever rising by the hour, one of the hottest topics in Central Kentucky has been whether a deal already has been made for the breeding rights to likely Derby favorite American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile).
Word among those in the know is that Coolmore’s Ashford Stud has been in the forefront of those pursuing the 2014 champion juvenile, but owner Ahmed Zayat deflected questions about whether a deal has been sealed.
“I can’t comment on that,” Zayat said.
“Put it this way: there has not been a farm in America that has not approached me,” he added. “The minute you have a Grade 1 winner, people will come to you. People have been coming all the time.”
Zayat would not give any other details, but said that “I own 100% of the colt” for racing.
Last November, Zayat sold American Pharoah’s dam, Littleprincessemma (Yankee Gentleman), at the Fasig-Tipton November mixed sale, with the now nine-year-old mare bringing $2.1 million from Frank and Jane Lyon’s Summer Wind Farm. Littleprincessemma foaled a full brother to American Pharoah on February 13 and while he is as powerfully built as his virtually solid bay older sibling, he is splashed with white on all four legs and his face.
“He’s a nice colt with good size, good bone, very strong, correct. He’s got lots of chrome to him and he’s very flashy,” said Mark Moloney, Summer Wind manager. “I went over and saw American Pharoah under tack the other day. American Pharoah is good size with a big strong hip. This colt is very powerful, very strong and he has a great hip on him. This fellow has just got more chrome, but I suppose you could say they look somewhat alike.”
Summer Wind already has named the foal Irish Pharaoh.
When asked why he sold Littleprincessemma, who Moloney confirmed is back in foal to leading sire Tapit, Zayat gave a one-word answer.
“Money,” he said.
“I have a (yearling) full sister to American Pharoah, so how greedy can I get?” he added. “I have all the genes. If I had had a colt, I would have never sold the dam. But everybody wanted to buy her, and before we knew how (American Pharoah) was coming back from his (left front foot) injury, it was a prudent business decision. We try to run a program, and as you know it becomes very expensive. I’ve put tens of millions of dollars in this business and sometimes you need to know when to sell or not to sell. It’s part of the business.”
The injury detected late in October kept American Pharoah out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. When Texas Red, who the Zayat colorbearer had defeated earlier in the G1 FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita Park, won the Juvenile, American Pharoah was a handy winner of the divisional Eclipse Award.
Zayat’s yearling full sister to American Pharoah currently resides at Lane’s End, and the owner planned to visit the filly on April 27 after flying to Kentucky to watch American Pharoah in his final Derby workout, set for the previous morning.
“We’re wrapping her in Styrofoam with kid gloves,” he said, laughing. “She’s my golden goose.”
American Pharoah also will provide lots of gold for Zayat when a breeding deal is announced. Already a champion and with the stock of his own sire soaring, his stud value is robust even without classic success.
“He’s going to be a hell of a stallion prospect,” said Mark Taylor, who helped raise American Pharoah at his family’s Taylor Made Farm and then took him to the Saratoga selected yearling sale, where Zayat bought him back for $300,000.
The Taylor Made team gave American Pharoah, who is the 24th Grade 1 winner raised at the farm, almost uniformly high marks each of the about eight months he was there.
“Every month it was ‘good size, beautiful top line, great bone, very athletic, good walker, correct,’ ” Taylor said of the farm’s notes on the colt. “He has enough leg and size and quality to him that whenever he goes to stud-whether it’s next year or the year after-I would be putting him at the top of the list for my customers’ mares every day of the week because he just has so much that a lot of mares need. They need leg, they need bone, they need quality, and he is just a beautiful mover. He’s the kind of horse I love to breed to.
“Wherever he ends up going-and there have been some rumors there has been a deal done-sign me up. He’s the kind of horse I love breeding to because he’ll fit a ton of mares and he’ll move a ton of mares up.”