142nd Kentucky Derby
When: Post time 3:34 p.m. May 7
VERSAILLES, Ky. — Nearly a calendar year since he embarked on the historic trek that would make him thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, American Pharoah is living the dream.
His home is the picture postcard setting of Ashford Stud, a 2,000-acre farm owned by Coolmore, the legendary breeding establishment based in Ireland, which purchased the breeding rights from the Zayat family before American Pharoah won the 2015 Belmont.
142nd Kentucky Derby
When: Post time 3:34 p.m. May 7
During breeding season, his day is a mixture of play (out in the paddock), visitors (more than 3,000 from 45 states and five different countries since he moved in at Ashford last November) and work (one to three breeding sessions per day) in which he has gone successfully about his business.
“He’s settled in real well,” stallion manager Richard Barry said. “He’s put on weight. His coat is magnificent. He’s a joy to be around. He’s absolutely push-button. No problem.”
“If every horse was like him we’d be lucky,” said Scott Calder of Ashford’s sales and marketing division.
Barry says Pharoah’s cover rate has been exemplary, especially for a first-time stallion. After a little more than 100 breeding sessions, Pharoah has covered — the industry’s term for impregnating — approximately 80 percent.
“He’s taken to it like a champion,” Calder said.
That has allowed everyone involved to breathe a bit easier. It is the first step in an expensive process, and it is never a guarantee a champion racehorse will produce foals — much less champion offspring.
During his time, Cigar was the sport’s all-time leading money winner, yet he proved sterile in the breeding shed. War Emblem, the 2002 Kentucky Derby winner who was purchased for $17.7 million by Japanese breeders, showed little to no interest in the mating process. Just last year, the dual-classic winner was sent to Old Friends, a thoroughbred retirement farm in Georgetown, Kentucky.
“There’s been no problem,” Barry said of Pharoah. “Absolutely none.”
Indeed, since arriving at Ashford two days after he won the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland on Oct. 31, Pharoah’s life has been pretty much problem-free. His home is a 14- by-13-foot stall in the stone stallion barn with four of the 13 other stallions on the Ashford property. In the midst of breeding season, his day starts with a morning breeding session anywhere from 7:30 to 8:30 before being let out into the paddock. There, he loves nothing more than a good roll. Pharoah often has dust and mud on his back from play periods he obviously enjoys.
American Pharoah arrives
When Pharoah first arrived, Ashford made the strategic decision to place him in a paddock next to 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch, now 24 years old. The thinking was Pharoah’s adjustment period would be helped by having an older, calmer stallion next door, not one that would entice races up and down the fence line, using up energy and risking injury.
After returning from the paddock, Pharoah has a groom each day followed most days by an afternoon breeding session. This year’s breeding season began Feb. 15. Asked if there was any truth to the story that Pharoah’s first mating was on Valentine’s Day, Calder smiled and reported that while the farm tries to exercise decorum in such matters, he wasn’t sure the supposed date of the first date isn’t more than a good story.
Farm tours sold out
By all reports, American Pharoah has remained his even-tempered and friendly self. The day after winning the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, a small crowd gathered outside American Pharoah’s barn off Rice Road. Instead of shooing people away, trainer Bob Baffert brought the champion out for everyone to see then invited people to come up and touch history for themselves. Not many thoroughbreds would have stood for that. American Pharoah was the perfect gentleman. That has not changed.
“A lot of people ask if he’s changed since he’s started breeding,” Calder said. “He’s just the same good-natured horse. Nothing fazes him really.”
It is his popularity that requires a bit of extra effort. “It’s not low-maintenance because of all the people that come to see him,” Barry said. “It’s a bigger adjustment for us.”
The Ashford Farm tour arrives at the barn at 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. American Pharoah is brought out of his stall to be seen and photographed by a crowd of 25 per session. The tour is sold out through May but, based on the horse’s routine and well-being, there are plans for it to continue year-round.
At 3:30 comes his second feeding of the day. The first is an early-morning grain feed before the morning breeding session. His afternoon feed consists of a bran mash. Since he arrived two days after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31, American Pharoah has put on 170 pounds. He still likes his carrots.
Breeding season lasts five months. Though that could change in the future, American Pharoah will not shuttle to stand at stud in the Southern Hemisphere this summer. So after the breeding season, Pharoah will spend a lot more time outside in his Ashford paddock. “It’s a quiet life,” Calder said.
More valuable at stud
Meanwhile, there is a nearly new stallion making noise at Ashford. Uncle Mo is off to a flying start. His first runners earned $3.7 million in 2015. He has at least three sons expected to run in the Kentucky Derby, including undefeated favorite Nyquist along with Wood Memorial winner Outwork and Lecomte winner Mo Tom.
Uncle Mo’s stud fee is $75,000 compared to American Pharoah’s $200,000, the highest for a freshman stallion since 2004. At present, Tapit commands the highest fee at $300,000 while standing at Gainesway Farm, but he started out at a modest $15,000. Even with discounts that are sometimes tendered as part of the process with different breeders — the Zayat family is allowed to breed up to 10 of its mares per the original purchase agreement (nine are currently in foal) — in his first year at stud Pharoah will make well beyond the $8.6 million he earned on the track.
How will his runners do? We won’t know that for a couple of years. His first foals are not scheduled to drop until early next year. And you never know. On the one hand, Secretariat was arguably the greatest thoroughbred to ever race yet was an average stallion. On the other hand, you rely on the industry’s creed: Breed the best to the best and hope for the best.
At the opposite end of Pharoah’s barn is one of the all-time best. Giant’s Causeway occupies not just a stall but an important place in Ashford’s breeding history. His offspring have accumulated lifetime earnings of almost $130 million making him the leading sire in North America.
In fact, there is a statue of Giant’s Causeway in front of the barn, there to pay homage to his great success as a stallion.
“I imagine,” said Calder, “there will be a statue of American Pharoah here one day, as well.”