The champ is off-duty. The groomsman releases him from his lead line and he saunters out in the open, nibbling at the bluegrass as he seeks out a favorite bare spot. Dirt. That’s what he wants. He flops to the ground like a dog yearning to be scratched on his belly and rolls around like the 4-year-old he is, coating his flanks in the rich limestone soil. The only way this could be better is if it had rained last night and this was mud. If horses could smile—and how do we know they can’t?—American Pharoah’s would be measured in furlongs. In this little piece of heaven known as Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud, the greatest horse in a generation has but one duty: Be fruitful and multiply.
Ashford Stud, in Versailles, Kentucky, is far from the riot of the race track. There are no roaring crowds, no bugler calling the horses to post, no clamoring bells or thundering hooves. Now, on the pasture of the 2,000-acre farm, American Pharoah hears only the wind, songbirds, and the nickering of his fellow stallions. The back acres where the stallions graze are, for understandable reasons, out of sight, sound, and smell from the mares’ pasture. The mares and the stallions meet only when it’s time.
“He’s a good one,” Richard Barry, Ashford Stud’s stallion manager, says affectionately, his native Irish eyes twinkling. “He knew what he was doing right away.” Indeed, he did. After a couple of sessions with “practice mares,” American Pharoah was introduced to Untouched Talent over Valentine’s Day weekend. Untouched Talent, a 12-year-old dark bay Coolmore acquired in 2012 for $5 million, will give birth to a royal foal in mid-January 2017.
On the track, American Pharoah was a superstar. In 11 races, he finished with nine wins and one place. He won $8.6 million for his owner, Zayat Stables, and became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. He finished his career with a triumphal win at the Breeders’ Cup just down the road at Keeneland. Not only is he a prize race horse, he’s a shining example of how genes count. “American Pharoah’s pedigree comes from one line that had demonstrated remarkable stamina”—on his father’s side—“and another that was known for its speed” on his mother’s side, Scott Calder, Ashford Stud’s spokesman, told me. “In breeding, what we’re trying to do is duplicate genes. As they say, ‘If you’re looking for gold, look where you’ve already found it.’”
Untouched Talent is herself something of a gold mine. While her track record is thin, with only two wins and two places in four starts, her father was the great Storm Cat, a prolific breeder whose nearly 500 offspring over a 20-year breeding career earned more than $127 million. Her family tree includes Thoroughbred champions Seattle Slew, A.P. Indy, Northern Dancer, and Bold Ruler. She previously bred with Empire Maker to produce Bodemeister, who placed second in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2012. The genetic codes of such equine kings and queens become more complicated when you consider that Empire Maker is both the grandfather of American Pharoah and the 2008 breeding mate of Untouched Talent. In what would make a twisted family reunion, if horses had them, American Pharoah and Untouched Talent share a common lineage to Secretariat. The Greatest Horse Ever was American Pharoah’s great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side while Untouched Talent sports a double line to the 1978 Triple Crown winner: Secretariat was the mare’s great-grandfather on her father’s side and great-great grandfather on her mother’s side. It would be enough to cause a riot on Ancestry.com.
Unlike humans, the entangled gene pool typically doesn’t result in genetic abnormalities. “We do watch for it,” Calder says, “but it seems we are breeding out any weak genes by overwhelming them with good genes.” With American Pharoah, everyone involved wants to make sure the resulting foal is as perfect as possible. “This is a rare stallion—the best,” he adds. “The mares will be the best, too.”
At 4 a.m. not even the birds are awake, but American Pharoah is and so are his fellow stallions. They share a stone barn with high-arched entrances; brass plaques identify each of their wood-paneled stalls. “Horses are always hungry,” Barry offers. “They like their routine so they let you know when it’s 4 a.m. We don’t have to remind them it’s time to eat.” American Pharoah’s first meal of the day consists of nine pounds of “sweet feed,” a mixture of corn, 14 percent protein, oats, and molasses. There’s also hay in his stall in case he gets hungry before breakfast.
After he eats, he is “lunged out,” which means he’s tied to a 30-foot line and trots in wide circles around his handler, good exercise for both horse and human. Then he heads out of his paddock to the pasture where he can roll in the mud or socialize with the other stallions for hours before returning for a well-needed grooming. “That can take a while,” Barry says, laughing and pointing down the trail as American Pharoah moves toward the barn with his groomsman. “He’s filthy as usual.”
The morning routine, of course, can be altered if American Pharoah has a 7:30 a.m. appointment. When he does, the moment Barry steers him toward the breeding shed, well, the great horse knows what’s coming next. And he’s pretty happy about it. “Oh yeah, he gets a little worked up on the walk there,” Barry says.
The mare is waiting. She has first been washed and her tail has been wrapped, primarily to protect American Pharoah’s sensitive area. A heavy leather shield has been placed around her neck—in the heat of the moment stallions often bite down on the mare—and she is outfitted with boots on her hind legs to protect American Pharoah should she kick. Ashford Stud uses a wood and rope twitch on their mares’ upper lips, which calms them and keeps their heads up and backsides down. While stallions and mares breed in the wild without help, this is a controlled environment; for each breeding session, four people are stationed around the two animals to make sure Part A and Part B come together, and do so safely. Horse breeding isn’t romance; it’s business.
Barry was there when American Pharoah and Untouched Talent met for the first (and probably last) time in February. The Ashford Stud breeding complex is large and can accommodate two simultaneous breeding sessions with separate sheds and holding areas for the mares. Pharoah and Untouched nuzzled for a few minutes and then the stallion “covered” the mare. Thirty seconds later, it was over, and the waiting game began. Sixteen days later, it was confirmed: American Pharoah would be a father for the first time. Since then, he’s gone on to sire a few more, and with more than 150 opportunities this breeding season alone, odds are good the bloodline will get longer.
It’s likely Untouched Talent will never see American Pharoah again. “There’s no ‘getting to know you’ in our business,” Barry says. “It’s 30 seconds and it’s over. No commitments but no regrets either. After all, they’re animals.”
Untouched Talent will remain on the Ashford Stud property and be monitored regularly during her pregnancy. She will move to the foaling barn around Christmastime in anticipation of the birth and she and her foal will be constant companions until a gradual weaning process begins five or six months later. American Pharoah’s randy life will continue. He likely will never see his first-born—unless it’s a colt and he meets him, three or four years later, as a fellow stallion.
At his busiest, American Pharoah has appointments lined up at 7:30, 1:30, and 6. It’s in the best interests of Ashford Stud to keep him busy during the breeding season, which officially runs from mid-February to mid-July. At $200,000 a pop, Pharoah could earn as much as $30 million in his first year alone if he can successfully breed with 150 mares. Stud fees are not paid until a foal is delivered, can stand upright, and is able to nurse. Whether it’s a colt or a filly, American Pharoah’s offspring will have a chance at the track. “Hopefully the Derby or the Oaks,” Calder says, naming the two premier races in the Commonwealth that are run on back-to-back days in May. That would be the 2020 races at Churchill Downs, so mark your calendar.
American Pharoah has gained more than 150 pounds since arriving at Ashford Stud and now tips the scale at 1,325 pounds. The untrained eye may not see the differences in his physique, but Barry does. “His hind quarters, back, and neck muscles are all bigger,” he says. “They have developed through the breeding process. He’s using different muscles than he did when he was racing so he is meatier and stronger.” At 16.2 hands (5-foot-5), he’s a relatively tall horse, too. And he’s still growing. His physique can be a factor in determining what mare qualifies to share the breeding shed.
“It’s not an exact science,” Calder acknowledges. “Some breeders put more emphasis on track record, some on bloodlines, and some on physical characteristics. There is a difference of opinion out there.” Physical characteristics include height of the mare and how she moves. “We look for complementary attributes with our stallions and mares,” he adds. “Pharoah’s mares will likely come from all over the world. He’s royalty so we’ll only get the very best.” Especially with that fee, making it likely that his bloodline will cross the pond to Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
The racing world was surprised when Ahmed Zayat, the Egyptian-born owner of Zayat Stables, decided the elusive Triple Crown wasn’t big enough for American Pharoah. Zayat and his trainer, Bob Baffert, wanted a super finish for their superhorse. The $5 million Breeders’ Cup at the most beautiful racetrack in America—Keeneland, outside Lexington—was just the ticket. With more than 50,000 fans and a national TV audience cheering on, jockey Victor Espinoza guided the bay colt around the mile and a quarter track in an effortless start-to-finish run into history. American Pharoah won that race like he had won the Derby, the Preakness, and Belmont, pulling away from a field that had grown accustomed to eating his dust. He crossed the finish line ahead of the pack by six-and-a-half lengths and set a track record, avenging what had been a head-scratching defeat two months earlier at the Travers Stakes.
The Zayat family’s decision to race American Pharoah after the Belmont Stakes rather than send the horse immediately to stud was a gamble. Horses can be hurt during transport, in practice, and of course, running at full speed on race day. Catastrophic injuries are rare but with American Pharoah’s stallion career about to start, deciding to seek the $2.75 million Breeders’ Cup winner’s prize raised a few eyebrows. (This is a horse that could earn $4 million in less than two weeks by successfully fathering just 20 foals.) But Zayat’s gamble paid off, spectacularly. And two days after that race, American Pharoah left Keeneland for a short, police-escorted procession to Ashford Stud. There, Baffert gave the reins to Barry, and according to press reports, bid an emotional farewell to his golden horse.
Executives at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud had trained their eyes on American Pharoah since he first stepped on a racetrack. Calder, a 29-year-old New Zealander with family roots in the horse business, said there was great excitement at Ashford Stud when the deal with the Zayat family was finalized after the Derby. “We are always looking for the next big thing and we knew he was a brilliant 2-year-old,” he said. “You can’t predict a Triple Crown, of course, but we knew he was very special.”
The horse breeding community is small and secrets are closely held. There was likely intense competition among the six to eight most prestigious breeders in horse country to secure the rights to American Pharoah, but Calder only smiled when asked about Ashford Stud’s pitch and how it won the day. Coyness aside, the farm has a 35-year history of breeding exceptional horses; undoubtedly, their knowledge and success rate turned the heads of the Zayat family. Their stallions bask in a charmed life where no detail is spared: A veterinarian lives on site; the sweet, bone-fortifying bluegrass surrounds them; and each horse receives specialized care, based on its age, health, and individual traits. “Oh, our horses are spoiled,” Barry says. “And I’m not sure they even know it.”
It’s a little before noon and American Pharoah has been cleaned up. His next appointment is still 90 minutes away so there’s time to show him off. Barry leads him out of his stall and into the muted sunshine of a mint julep kind of day. He stands placidly as I stroke his shoulder and neck. I can feel the powerful muscles move as he turns his head to the left and gives me a good look. Barry pulls the rein to straighten his head but for maybe a second we lock eyes. I’ve met presidents, business magnates, movie stars, and Ernie Banks, but this is American Pharoah—a winner on the track, gentle with visitors, a joy to his handlers, physically impressive. Plus, all the ladies love him. “He’s like that one guy you knew in high school who was good at everything he did,” says Calder, wistfully. I want to take him home.
“Do you think he knows he’s a star?” I ask.
“No, I don’t think so,” Barry replies, reminding me once more that this is a horse we’re talking about. “When it comes down to it, he’d really rather just have a carrot.”