Tuesday, February 2, 2016

American Pharoah - Finally the One

Feb. 2 is Triple Crown and Grand Slam Champion American Pharoah’s birthday – and in honor of his birthday I thought that I would write (how I view) his story –

I think it’s best to start at the end of the 2014 Belmont Stakes – California Chrome had recently won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – but (perhaps due to injury) California Chrome finished 4th in the Belmont – and on National Television Owner Steve Coburn proclaimed:

“I’m 61 years old, and I’ll never see in my lifetime, I’ll never see another Triple Crown winner ..because the way they do this”. *See Video ------------------------ >

After over 35 years without a Triple Crown winner – those who still paid any attention to the Sport of Kings, certainly understood Mr. Coburn’s sentiments.

What was it going to take to build another Triple Crown winner?

What if I told you that American Pharoah’s story begins on February 9th 1913 --- you read that correctly 1913…as in the year before World War 1 began in Europe.

Feb. 9 1913 – Hall of Fame Trainer John Andrew Nerud is born on a ranch in Nebraska.

The Great Race of 38!

1919 - Sir Barton wins the Triple Crown
1930 – Gallant Fox wins the Triple Crown

1935 – Mr. Nerud begins his career training Horses.

1935 – Omaha wins the Triple Crown
1937 – War Admiral wins the Triple Crown

1938 – Seabiscuit defeats War Admiral in the Pimlico Special

1941 – Whirlaway wins the Triple Crown
1943 – Count Fleet wins the Triple Crown
1948 – Citation wins the Triple Crown

1949 – Having returned from serving in the Navy in World War II – Mr. Nerud returns to training horses and has three significant victories (Hialeah Inaugural Handicap, Seminole Handicap and the New Rochelle Handicap)

Gallant Man & John Nerud
1953 – Trainer Bob Baffert is Born.

1957 – Mr. Nerud’s horse Gallant Man is beaten by a nose in the Kentucky Derby by Iron Leige – in what is a legendary misjudgment by Hall of Fame Jockey Willie Shoemaker:

Some Background - (link below)

Nerud’s response: 
“You can’t turn the clock back; Shoemaker just made a mistake and pulled him up,” Nerud said. “But what are you going to do? If you’re a gentleman, you say nothing; you eat it and go home.”

The 1957 Kentucky Derby can be seen here brought to you by Universal International News....(I love these old newscasts)

Gallant Man skips the Preakness and returns to win the 1957 Belmont Stakes.

1968 – Dr Fager – Trained by Mr. Nerud and named after the neurosurgeon who saved Nerud’s life after a fall from his horse, is perhaps Mr. Nerud’s greatest horse – this quote sums it up perfectly:

In 1968, Dr. Fager was acclaimed champion older horse, champion sprinter, champion grass horse, and Horse of the Year. In short, he was considered the best at literally everything an American racehorse is asked to do, except jump a fence. Then again, he never tried.

1972 – Jockey Victor Espinoza is born

1973 – Secretariat wins the Triple Crown (ending a 25 year drought in dramatic fashion)

1977 – Fappiano is born (Dr. Fager is his Grand Sire on the Mare’s side) – He is breed and trained by Mr. Nerud – and  while Fappiano’s racing career is somewhat modest (a Metropolitan Handicap Victory) – his most important contribution will be in producing Champions.....that eventually lead us to American Pharoah.

1977 – Seattle Slew wins the Triple Crown
1978 – Affirmed wins the Triple Crown
1979 – Spectacular Bid wins KY Derby and Preakness – (finishes 3rd in the Belmont).

1979 – John Nerud retires from Training Horses – but still continues as a Manager and Breeder. He is instrumental as a Founding Father of The Breeder’s Cup.

1981 – Pleasant Colony – Wins KY Derby and Preakness – (finishes 3rd in the Belmont)

1984 – Swale (sired by Seattle Slew) Wins KY Derby and Belmont (loses Preakness).

1984 – The first year of The Breeder’s Cup kicks off at Hollywood Park in California.

1987 – Alysheba wins KY Derby and Preakness – (finished 4th in the Belmont)

1989 – Sunday Silence – wins KY Derby and Preakness – (finished 2nd in the Belmont).
Sunday Silence goes on to win the Breeders Cup.

1990 – Unbridled – Sired by Fappiano wins the KY Derby and the Breeders Cup Classic.

1992 – Trainer Bob Baffert gets first major win with Thirty Slews in the Breeders Cup Sprint.

1994 – Thunder Glutch wins the KY Derby, finishes 3rd in the Preakness and then wins the Belmont Stakes.

1997 – Silver Charm – trained by Bob Baffert – wins the KY Derby and Preakness – (finishes 2nd in the Belmont).

1998 – Real Quiet – Grandsired by Fappiano, Trained by Bob Baffert – wins the KY Derby and Preakness (finishes 2nd to Victory Gallop who was also Grand Sired by Fappiano).

1999 – Charismatic – wins KY Derby and Preakness – (finishes 3rd in the Belmont).

2000 -- Thoroughbred Empire Maker is born – sired by Unbridled (1990) – Grandsired by Fappiano.

2001 – Victor Espinoza rides in his first Kentucky Derby and finishes 3rd on Congaree.

2002 – War Emblem – Trained by Bob Baffert and with Jockey Victor Espinoza aboard – wins the KY Derby and Preakness – (finishing 8th in the Belmont Stakes – after a nearly tragic beginning of the race with War Emblem falling to his knees coming out of the gate).

2003 – Funny Cide – wins KY Derby and Preakness – loses to Empire Maker in the Belmont Stakes.

**After victories in the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial (where he defeated Funny Cide) Empire Maker was considered the favorite that year in the Kentucky Derby – but instead he finished 2nd. Nevertheless Empire Maker may end up living up to his name – as he is the Grand Sire to American Pharoah.

The 2003 Belmont Stakes I believe is worth watching because Empire Maker shows his ability to tackle the Distance and run well in Mud – something American Pharoah will also be able to master:
2004 – Smarty Jones wins the KY Derby and Preakness – and after having gone undefeated in all of his 8 lifetime races – he fades in the Belmont and finishes 2nd.
Heart break in NY - as he is a New York Bred horse and the Belmont is in NY!

2006 – After so many close calls for the Triple Crown I begin writing a blog on Horse Racing, determined to follow the sport into its greatest accomplishment…..the word on the track was that a horse named Barbaro looks to finally break the Triple Crown drought – Despite being relatively new to the sport, I was devastated watching Barbaro suffer an injury in the Preakness, especially after such a glorious victory in the Kentucky Derby. My Father offered some advice that year – Horse Racing can break your heart if you let it.

Barbaro's Jockey Edgar Prado moments after the injury in the Preakness.
Barbaro's saddle and blanket at his feet.

2006 – Pioneer of the Nile is born - sired by Empire Maker (Unbridled / Fappiano)

2008 – Big Brown – seemed unstoppable – he won the KY Derby from the 20th position, and won the Preakness with relative ease. The competition he faced in the Belmont was kind of a joke (he was the 3-10 favorite)…..but Jockey Kent Desormeaux sensed a mechanical difficulty and pulled Big Brown up for fear of injury. Big Brown didn’t even finish the race. 

**I thought Big Brown was a lock that year!
Baby Pharoah!

2012 – American Pharoah is born – Sired by Pioneer of the Nile (Empire Maker / Unbridled / Fappiano).

2012 – I’ll Have Another – wins the KY Derby and the Preakess – but an injury prevents him from running in the Belmont Stakes. He became only the third horse, after Burgoo King in 1932 and Bold Venture in 1936, to be scratched from the Belmont Stakes after having won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

2014 – California Chrome – with Jockey Victor Espinosa aboard -- wins the KY Derby and Preakness – finishes 4th in the Belmont Stakes after sustaining an injury during the Belmont -- Owner Steve Coburn declares he'll never see a Triple Crown winner in his lifetime.

2015 – American Pharoah begins his march into Horse Racing history,

There's a few quirky tidbits in American Pharoah's background. 

The word Pharoah is misspelled in his name -- and there is some debate about whose fault that is? Interestingly enough the Triple Crown Blanket awarded to American Pharoah after his Belmont victory inadvertently used the "correct" spelling of Pharaoh -- so basically his misspelling was misspelled. 

As you will see in these Videos American Pharoah has a shorter tail than most of the other horses -- the "theory" is that a Stablemate of his Mr. Z chewed it off.....you can't make this stuff up.

The first race I'd like to look at is the Rebel Stakes -- at this point American Pharoah had lost his first race, and won the following two - this will be his second race at 1 1/16 miles.

You'll notice Tiz Wonderful hops in the air at the beginning of the race, you'll also notice the muddy track -- neither of these distractions phase American Pharoah -- he's able to remain focused and runs in the mud without any issues -- his ability in Mud will definitely become a factor down the road -- but this horse shows such incredible focus for a young three year old horse. 

In the Arkansas Derby what impresses me most is how poised American Pharoah remains even though a Long Shot tries to lure him into an early speed trap. A lot of quality horses (and especially young horses) have difficulty not being the front runner -- and even the best of horses will often chase down the early speedsters and fade in the final furlongs -- he shows remarkable poise in his early career.  

This is the first time American Pharoah has run in a 1 1/8th mile race, and he handles it beautifully -- American Pharoah bides his time -- and then proceeds to crush the competition -- this was a masterful performance. 

The following race was the Kentucky Derby -- and the poise he had shown in the Arkansas Derby would be tested again. Coming out of the 18th Post Position -- American Pharoah has an advantage in that he'll be able to avoid getting boxed in early -- however the disadvantage is that American Pharoah will be giving ground to the inside horses (and literally running a longer race than they are -- and as they come out of the final turn, I see him going nearly 8 Wide from the Rail -- that's a LOT of space) -- this is a test of his endurance and poise -- and in the end he's (somehow) just got more left in the tank than any other horse.

In Mid May Baltimore was still reeling from the Riots of late April -- There was a chance the Preakness would be cancelled, and while the events in Baltimore were far more important than a Horse Race -- it seemed like destiny might throw another wrench into a possible Triple Crown -- the race day was allowed but as the Preakness approached, dark, violent clouds encroached on Pimlico. 

It was a driving rain and it was just in time for the for the Preakness! Historically I've seen Owners with amazing horses purposefully "not" run their horses to their full potential for fear of injury. It was very possible the economics of Horse Racing could also end American Pharoah's bid for the Triple Crown -- would they actually let him run??

I've never seen a Preakness this sloppy before....and as they approached the gate -- I thought bad luck would once again strip us from a Triple Crown winner -- the weather, the atmosphere, even the horse (Mr. Z) who ate his tail was in this one -- it seemed all so bleak. 

But American Pharoah doesn't even skip a beat -- he BLAZES in the mud -- giving us a 22 second opening! Despite the pouring rain....despite the blazing 22 second 1/4 of a mile, in the MUD -- nobody is even close to him at the finish line -- in my opinion this is the horse Empire Maker could have been.

Thirty Seven Years had gone by since Affirmed had won the last Triple Crown -- 15 times (and twice in the past two years) Horses had won Two of the Races in the Triple Crown without being able to close the deal.

This would be the third time Jockey Victor Espinosa would have at winning a Triple Crown -- having been in the same position just the year before with California Chrome.

This would be Trainer Bob Bafferts fourth attempt at winning a Triple Crown -- Victor Espinosa had been his Jockey in 2002 on War Emblem.

It's no secret that the Belmont Stakes is about Endurance -- especially for any Triple Crown contender, because they are usually the only horse who has raced in ALL Three of the Triple Crown races -- and this is exactly why Owner Steve Coburn had gone on a rant the year before.

As you'll see --- American Pharoah takes an early lead and as he hits the final stretch I think everyone held their breath waiting for a long shot to dash any Triple Crown hopes once again. 

But just when it seemed American Pharoah might be fading (at the 2:20 mark).....he finds another gear -- simply remarkable.

I still get chills as I hear "American Pharoah is FINALLY the One!"

American Pharoah continued racing in 2015 -- winning his next race the Haskell Invitational before losing (finishing 2nd) in the Travers Stakes -- personally I think he was exhausted from the travel and too much racing in the Travers....but he still managed to finish 2nd.

He finished his career with a victory in the Breeders Cup Classic -- the first horse to ever win the Triple Crown and a Breeders Cup Race.

American Pharoah retired after the Breeders Cup -- and in three year or so we'll start to see another generation from the Fappiano / Unbridled / Empire Maker / Pioneer of the Nile bloodline.

California Chrome Owner, Steve Coburn, was alive and well to witness American Pharoah accomplish what Mr. Coburn stated he would never see in his lifetime only the year before. California Chrome continued to race in his 4th year, and from what I'm reading will continue running in 2016.

John Nerud (at 102 years old) also lived long enough to watch American Pharoah win a Triple Crown -- having been partially responsible for the success nearly 40 years before in breeding Fappiano.

Mr. Nerud had even contacted Trainer Bob Baffert before the race to wish him luck.

Mr. Nerud passed away, nearly a month after the Belmont Stakes, on August 15, 2015 --- perhaps one of the last people to have direct contacts with all of the Triple Crown winners since 1919.

Below is a great article on Mr. Nerud's life:

Where's the competition?

American Pharoah with Trainer Bob Baffert