American Pharoah’s Second Life as a $200k-a-Night Stud
The world’s fastest horse could earn more in the shed than he made on the track.
The verb to use in polite company is “cover.” The stud covers the mare. Or: About 11 months after she was covered, the mare gave birth to a healthy foal.
The deed itself, here in the hills of Kentucky horse country, is governed by strict rules. Section V, paragraph D of The American Stud Book Principal Rules and Requirements is clear: “Any foal resulting from or produced by the processes of Artificial Insemination, Embryo Transfer or Transplant, Cloning or any other form of genetic manipulation not herein specified, shall not be eligible for registration.” No shortcuts, no gimmicks. All thoroughbreds must be the product of live, all-natural, horse-on-horse action.
Herein lurks tension and peril. When one 1,300-pound animal climbs on top of another, both sacrifice their natural sure-footedness for about 20 seconds of knee-buckling magic. Necks can be bitten, causing legs to kick and prompting centers of gravity to shift. An unlucky fall could break a delicate foreleg—a potentially fatal injury for a thoroughbred.
“Things can go wrong,” says Richard Barry, the stallion manager at Ashford Stud, a 2,200-acre farm in Versailles, Ky. “Before any stallion is led into the breeding shed, there’s an awful lot of preparation that has gone on behind the scenes. An awful lot.”
Barry will soon choreograph the most hotly anticipated covering in recent history: American Pharoah’s first coupling with a mare. Pharoah—the name was misspelled early and it stuck—last year became the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown. Now millions, and possibly billions, of dollars in revenue depend on his talents in the breeding shed. In November, about two weeks after American Pharoah retired, his 2016 stud fee was set at $200,000, the highest ever for an unproven, first-year stallion. Only one other active stud—a tested, 15-year-old veteran named Tapit—commands that much per successful cover. Tapit’s first-year fee was $15,000; his rate rose to its current $300,000 only after a decade of producing stakes-winning foals.
But Tapit was no American Pharoah on the track. He wasn’t revered as a once-in-a-lifetime freak of nature. He didn’t draw 15,000 fans to a training track on a summer day in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when no races were being run. He wasn’t a savior, the Chosen One who returned his sport to the national spotlight.
“We have never seen interest like this in a horse,” says Barry, an Irishman who’s worked with plenty of celebrated stallions over the past 40 years. “Even Cigar—no disrespect to him—didn’t generate excitement even remotely close to this.”
Cigar was the highest-earning thoroughbred in racing history. Early in 1997, when he was led to the breeding shed for the first time, he seemed a natural-born stud, successfully mounting 34 mares in short order. But weeks passed, and none of those mares got pregnant. Cigar was sterile. “There are no guarantees,” Barry says, smiling and releasing a sigh so heavy it trembles on the edge of a groan. “It’s in the lap of the gods.”
Successful stallions are routinely matched with more than 100 mares in a five-month breeding season. Particularly energetic ones might cover as many as 200 a year. If American Pharoah produces several seasons of healthy and fast foals, standard pricing norms suggest that his stud fee will multiply exponentially. Very quickly, the $8.6 million he earned during his racing career would begin to look like small change.
The 2016 breeding season begins on Feb. 15. There’s a good chance one of the mares already on Pharoah’s calendar will ovulate shortly before that date. If so, Barry says, the farm could push the season’s first session up by 24 hours to take advantage of her optimal reproductive conditions.
Happy Valentine’s Day, American Pharoah. No pressure.
Green fields roll toward the horizon, and a mid-December sun arcs across a marbled sky. A few stubborn leaves cling to branches. In the distance, American Pharoah ambles along a dirt path, heading for Ashford Stud’s main stallion barn. It’s a cathedral of hand-hewn limestone, floored with nonslip, rubberized bricks. The interior shines with darkly polished, furniture-grade red oak. A cinematic band of light, swirling with motes, streams through a window.
Ashford Stud is owned by Ireland’s Coolmore Stud, a multinational breeding empire run by onetime Irish Senator John Magnier. For decades his Coolmore Boys, as they’re known in Kentucky, were considered icy outsiders who tightly guarded the mysteries of their operation. That reputation was fueled in part by envy. Until 2008 stud fees were tax-exempt under Irish law, an advantage that ate at many of Coolmore’s Kentucky competitors. When Ireland ended the tax break, much of the griping turned into respect for Coolmore, which produces more prized thoroughbreds than any other breeding outfit in the world.
Just before American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, Coolmore struck a deal for his stud rights with the horse’s owner, Ahmed Zayat. After selling the Egyptian beer company Al-Aharam Beverages to Heineken in the early 2000s, Zayat moved to Teaneck, N.J., and established Zayat Racing Stables in nearby Hackensack. His son Justin, 23, the stable’s manager, says the Coolmore contract prevents him from disclosing terms, but he confirms that the family retained a percentage of the stallion’s potential earnings for themselves.
“We’ll continue to keep close track of American Pharoah, and we’ll also keep close track of his progeny,” Justin says. “Obviously that’s partly because we still have an interest in him, but it’s also because we plan to breed our own mares with him. We’ll probably breed close to 10 mares with him this year.”
Since American Pharoah arrived in Versailles in early November, Barry has been trying to throttle the horse’s metabolism, to pack a couple hundred pounds on him, to calibrate his big, pounding heart to the farm’s slow, pastoral rhythms. “With what he’s going to be doing,” Barry says, “you don’t want a fiery, you know, torpedo going into the breeding shed.”
Around 7 each morning, a farmhand turns out American Pharoah for about three hours of free time in a green field bounded by four-board fences. In the paddock next to Pharoah’s, Barry’s crew has planted a 24-year-old stallion—a wizened old-timer in the stud world—to serve as the young horse’s mentor.
His name is Thunder Gulch. Maybe you’ve heard of him—in 1995 he won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes and finished just three-quarters of a length behind in the Preakness. Since then, he’s fathered 2,382 foals.
“If you get two young horses next to each other, they’ll likely run around and race each other along the fence line,” says Scott Calder, the farm’s sales and marketing manager. “Thunder Gulch is more interested in eating grass.”
The lessons of the sage seem to be rubbing off. When confronted with an open field, American Pharoah now shows little interest in ripping off quarter-miles, preferring to graze or roll in the mud.
Each day around 10 a.m., Pharoah walks back to his stall, where a farmhand gives him a spruce-up, vacuuming the dust off and bringing out the velveteen shine in his coat with a damp sponge and hand brush. Pharoah spends the rest of his time in his stall, sleeping, eating oats and hay, and staring for hours at all that gleaming, furniture-grade oak.
At Lane’s End, a farm about 2 miles from Ashford, bloodstock manager David Ingordo has been paging through his farm’s lineup of mares, searching for potential matches with Pharoah. He’s looking for specific qualities—speed, endurance, body type—that would complement the champion’s best traits. He could go deep into the horses’ pedigrees, tracing their tangled genetic lines, creating amazingly complex maps of compatibilities with the help of computer programs. Or he could follow his gut.
“Some of my clients, they’re big hedge fund guys, and they’re into microtrading, and for them everything is an algorithm,” Ingordo says. “I try to explain to them that there’s something else you need, too. … An eye. I’m not sure exactly what an eye for a horse is, but it’s real.”
Ingordo first caught sight of American Pharoah in 2013, when the Zayats hired him to help them sell the horse at auction. They wanted $300,000, about average at that particular auction, but they didn’t get it. According to conventional analysis, American Pharoah’s pedigree was good. It wasn’t great.
Ingordo looked at the horse’s big nostrils, his perky ears, the masculine head, the strong neck, the deep saddle girth, his not-too-long back, the good hips, and the quality feet. He urged the Zayats to keep the horse. A few months later, Ingordo stood at a Florida training track, muttering unholy benedictions as Pharoah streaked by. “He was just an awesome specimen, an A-plus-plus,” Ingordo says. “Some horses are so good, they can make their own pedigree.”
True, but racing greatness doesn’t always predict breeding success. Secretariat may have been the greatest horse that ever raced; he wasn’t even close to the greatest stud. That would be Northern Dancer, who from 1965 to 1990 sired hundreds of stakes-winning champions. In the mid-1980s, an era of rampant speculative investment known as the Bluegrass Bubble, his stud fee climbed to $1 million. It’s still the record.
“The No. 1 thing people seem to care about nowadays is fashion,” says Rommy Faversham, a California-based pedigree analyst. “Everybody just wants to say, ‘I’m breeding five of my mares to American Pharoah,’ or whoever is the stallion of the month.”
It’s a risk plenty of thoroughbred owners seem eager to take. If American Pharoah can somehow replicate himself, they’ll be popping Champagne corks in the winner’s circle in three years. Ingordo, for one, expects to send Ashford Stud a list of about 10 mares he’d like to breed to Pharoah.
In a field behind Ingordo’s office, Charles Campbell walks into a large barn of freshly mucked stalls. He’s Lane’s End’s broodmare manager. He pulls out an iPad, swipes open a spreadsheet, and reviews the ovulation cycles of each of the 137 mares on the farm. Some could soon be carrying Pharoah’s foals.
As soon as the specific mares are identified, Campbell will begin monitoring their ovaries via ultrasound, measuring the follicles every day or two until they reach roughly the size of a golf ball. “You have about two days before the mare’s breeding window closes,” he says. “If you don’t get the time you want, you might as well just cancel.”
Before he arranges for a trailer to shuttle a mare over to Ashford Stud, Campbell will subject her to one last test. He’ll parade a “teaser”—a small stallion condemned to a life of frustration—directly in front of her barn door, to see her reaction.
“These girls, if they’re not interested, they’ll just walk off,” he says, waving a dismissive hand through the air. “But if they are interested, they’ll stand here with their asses squashed against the door, just crying out, ‘Breed me!’ ”
American Pharoah’s mojo—the essence that so many mare owners want to capture—was easiest to see around a racetrack, where he consistently made otherwise sane people lose their minds for a little while.
On the morning of Oct. 31, 2015, about eight hours before the Breeders’ Cup Classic, American Pharoah was resting in a cinder-block barn about a mile from the Keeneland racetrack in Lexington, Ky. The light inside was weak, and the only sounds were the snuffles and snores of sleeping horses. But in the far corner, near the second-to-last stall, a pair of armed Kentucky Army National Guardsmen in pale green fatigues stood sentinel. “You can walk right up to this stall next to me,” one of them told a visiting reporter, “but no further.”
They’d been on American Pharoah duty for two days, and they couldn’t begin to count the number of people who’d wandered in wanting to snap a selfie or stroke his mane or grab a piece of his hay. All the other horses in the barn, some of them celebrated champions in their own right, simply didn’t exist as far as most visitors were concerned.
“I tell people, ‘We’ve got Mister Ed, a talking horse, in a stall right over there,’ ” the guard said. “But they don’t care about a talking horse. All they care about is American Pharoah.”
That afternoon, before each of the nine races, the horses were paraded in front of the fans in the paddock, a small lawn next to the main track. A crowd of well-barbered men in brown country suits and ladies with tiny hats pinned to their heads calmly observed the stallions and sipped fruity cocktails.
Then Pharoah came out. Everyone needed a glimpse. Spectators flared their elbows and lowered their shoulders, widening their stances. By the time the horse stepped onto the grass, decorum had been abandoned. Amid the jostle, Alex Crabtree and her younger sister, Darrah, battled to maintain their stations about five rows back from the low hedge that separated crowd and horse. “This is history,” said Alex, 23. “We came here from Muncie, Indiana, just so we could see him.”
The sisters rose on their tiptoes—but so did everyone in front of them, leaving them staring at the back of people’s heads. Darrah remained defiantly optimistic. “I think I see his ears,” she said. They held their cell phones overhead, hoping their cameras would catch what their eyes couldn’t see.
About 10 feet behind the Crabtrees, a woman perched on a small brick ledge. “Photos for $5,” she said. Heads turned, and the woman’s eyes widened, surprised that so many people had paid attention to her. She reconsidered: “Photos for $10!” Seconds later she was holding three phones in her left hand, splaying them like playing cards, reaching down with her right hand for a fourth.
The race itself went as expected. Pharoah floated across the finish line 6½ lengths ahead of his nearest challenger, and everyone’s day at the races was stamped with the permanent seal of historical significance. Women hugged. Men cried.
“I feel blessed and lucky,” said a U.S. Coast Guard officer named Walter Lipski from Cape May, N.J. “This is it. He’s done.” A memory less than two minutes old filled him with nostalgia. “I’ll never see anything like that again.”
Later, in the rush to leave the track, supermodel Kate Upton, who’d appeared a couple of days earlier on The Tonight Show and said, “I just want to make out with American Pharoah,” was led through the crowd by a lost-looking security guard; she implored him to get her back into the roped-off paddock area, into which American Pharoah had just disappeared.
Near the track’s concourse exits, television monitors replayed highlights of Pharoah’s victory, and for a moment the image of the horse was frozen on the screen. “Would you just look at that face,” said Amy Jackson, who runs an equine therapy center in Maryland. She seemed emotionally exhausted. “I mean, really! Look at that face!”
Remember Cigar, the sterile stud? That’s not the worst-case scenario. Cigar’s fertility was insured for $25 million. Coolmore Stud has taken out a similar policy on American Pharoah. Infertility is manageable. A far more threatening possibility is that he might end up like War Emblem, one of the most baffling creatures ever to be dragged into a breeding shed.
He was a champion, a Derby and Preakness winner trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza, the same team that guided Pharoah last year. When War Emblem retired in 2002, a prominent Japanese breeding farm bought his stud rights for $17.7 million, and put him on a trans-Pacific flight to begin covering mares the following year.
War Emblem was always a bit cantankerous, Baffert says. But while he was winning high-stakes races, it was easy to give his obstinacy a positive spin, calling it independence or free-spiritedness. Not so at stud. His first year in Japan, he produced only four foals.
His Japanese handlers struggled to figure him out. It wasn’t just that he appeared disinterested in the majority of mares he met; he seemed downright repelled by many of them. He reserved particular disdain for large ones. “And if he hates a type of mare,” his veterinarian, Nobuo Tsunoda, told an industry website in 2008, “he attacks them.” Several sports blogs and websites speculated that War Emblem might be gay.
They tried hormone supplements. They separated him from other studs, believing he might have found them intimidating. They flew in animal behaviorists for “intensive therapy” sessions.
War Emblem averaged just nine foals a year during his stud career, and last year, after several consecutive seasons of total noncompliance, his owners gave up on him. With the help of a $50,000 donation from Baffert, War Emblem flew back to the U.S. in October to be stabled near Lexington at a farm called Old Friends. It’s a retirement home of sorts.
Espinoza visited War Emblem three days before he rode American Pharoah to victory at the Breeders’ Cup. He loves both horses—one was his first Kentucky Derby winner, the other gave him the Triple Crown. But temperamentally, he says, the two stallions couldn’t be more different. “War Emblem was always a little stubborn, but American Pharoah, he’s just so sweet,” Espinoza says. “He’s like a little pet.”
Breeders latch on to statements like that, interpreting them as hopeful portents. The folks at Ashford Stud marvel at Pharoah’s patience and conscientiousness. They echo Justin Zayat’s description of him: “A beast on the track and a teddy bear in the stall.”
It makes him easy to handle. But he’s not getting $200,000 to cuddle. “I’d like to see him get a little bit tougher once he starts breeding, to get the testosterone flowing,” Barry says. “I’m not talking about him becoming a savage or anything close to that. But this is the moment when boys turn into men, essentially.”
The breeding shed is a short walk from the main stallion barn. Inside, big blue pads, the kind you might see in a high school gym, line the walls. The floor is cushioned with the chopped-up tire treads used in playgrounds to soften falls.
Minutes before American Pharoah enters the shed for his first real tryst this month, a handler will lead in the mare. Brown leather pads evoking 1920s football gear will be strapped around her lower legs. Near the center of the shed, she’ll be positioned in front of a mound of synthetic matting. That’s when a miniature stallion, Ashford Stud’s resident fluffer, will arrive and climb the mound of mats so he can get high enough to jump her. A thick apron tied around his waist will keep him from taking things too far.
That’s American Pharoah’s job. As he’s led toward the mare, a small crowd will converge upon the scene. One person, wearing a helmet, will stand in front of the mare, manipulating her front leg, forcing her to shift more of her weight to the hindquarters to prevent back-kicking. Another person will handle the twitch—a stick with a loop of rope on the end, which is tied to the mare’s upper lip; raising it helps keep the mare’s head up, which keeps her backside down. Somebody else will stand directly beside the two animals, ready to provide Pharoah with a delicate assist, manually steering him into position if necessary. (It reduces the need for multiple jumps.) A fourth person will capture everything on video, in case lawyers, insurance investigators, Jockey Club officials, or anyone else needs to review the footage.
Pharoah, by this point, will have already caught an up-close glimpse of a female. “Before his first time, we’ll bring in an old mare that’s basically bombproof,” Barry says. “What I mean by that is, he can jump up and down on her to figure out what we want him to do. Once he figures that out, he should be set.”
Justin Zayat spoke with the folks at Ashford Stud in December. They informed him that they’d just tested American Pharoah’s reactions in the breeding shed for the first time.
“They just told me the first time that they brought him for what they call a test breeding, he was just like he was on the racetrack,” Zayat said. “A champion.”