If you are anything like me, even if you don’t follow horse-racing closely, there is nothing as thrilling as the yearly quest for the Triple Crown. Like millions of other Americans, I was captivated by the handsome bay who won the first Triple Crown in 37 years! So excited to have horse-racing expert and fantastic author Joe Drape here today– talking about his bestselling book American Pharaoh. Not only did he write a fascinating up-close-and-personal look at the beloved Triple Crown winner– but he also got to meet the big bay and has photos to prove it!
Elizabeth: What draws you to write about horse racing?
Joe: The horses first are beautiful, ethereal and something to behold in full flight. Now surround them with a cast of human characters that are colorful and flawed and have big money and bigger ego at stake. Some are utterly devoted to the horses, too often many don’t have their best interest at heart. It’s the stuff of drama that has provided great material, fun and purpose for me for the past 18 years at the New York Times.
All these elements and more are part of American Pharoah: The Untold Story beginning with extraordinary athlete of uncommon intelligence who did something that has been done rarely (11 times) and for the first time in 37 years: Win the Triple Crown.
American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, was a character out of Damon Runyon – a flamboyant Orthodox Jew who made a fortune selling beer to Muslims and then gambled much of it away and bankrupted his stables. His Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, was on a decade long cold streak in the Triple Crown, had recently suffered a near fatal heart attack and run afoul of regulators after seven horses died in his care. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, a sweet-natured soul who was undergoing a career renaissance was not Baffert’s first or second choice to ride American Pharoah. He was the fifth.
Elizabeth: When writing about American Pharaoh, did you learn anything that really surprised you?
Joe: So much. I structured it as a biography, as silly as that might seem for a horse. And for the first (and probably last) time in my writing life, I was able to open with a sex scene. I started with his father and mother [Pioneerof the Nile and Littleprincessemma] mating because not only is it a fascinating piece of choreography, but I wanted to show the dreamy aspect of breeders in the face of impossible odds. There was far more suspense, and luck, and magic just American Pharoah to the Kentucky Derby that no one knew about. There were 25,000 foals born in American Pharoah’s crop and only 20 can make it to the gate of the Derby.
And that’s when the people in the story, who are absolutely vital to the narrative, began their relationship with American Pharoah and, as relationships do, they evolved. Ahmed Zayat, for example, whose first encounter with the greatest horse he will ever own was in Saratoga, when he tried to sell him. He needed cash to get out of a bankruptcy, but Pharoah banged his ankle on the days leading to the sale and no one wanted to buy him. At the time Zayat thought he was cursed, but it was actually the luckiest thing that ever happened to him.
Elizabeth. A match race between American Pharaoh and Secretariat— who wins?
Joe: I am American Pharoah’s biographer and he is the best horse I have ever seen in person. But Secretariat, for my money, is the greatest race horse ever. What he did in the 1973 Belmont, winning the race by 31 lengths to sweep the Triple Crown, is one of the greatest achievements in all of sports. He ran every quarter mile faster than the previous one. It would be close, but Big Red gets the win over Pharoah.
Elizabeth: Have you “met” AP? What was he like?
Joe: I have met American Pharoah and here’s one of my prized possessions – a photo of me and him together. I visited him at Ashford Stud before this year’s Derby and was hardly surprised that he was good in the stallion shed as he was on the racetrack. His mind is as bright as his body was perfectly engineered.
Here’s an anecdote from the book that bears that out:
The following morning, Cecil Seaman visited American Pharoah outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. He took his tape measure out and began stretching and wrapping around various parts of the colt’s body – fifteen specific measurements in all – as he has done for more than 108,000 Thoroughbreds, including the previous four Triple Crown champions, over forty- five years. It had already been established that American Pharoah’s stride reached 26 feet and he could cover approximately 55 feet per second. Seaman, a bloodstock consultant, had developed a system to evaluate the biomechanics of Thoroughbreds. Among his comprehensive database were the measurements of 850 champions, 2,000 G1 winners, 750 earners of at least $1 million, 50 Kentucky Derby victors and over 25 winners each of the Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
Seaman was hardly surprised that American Pharoah graded out A + in his system alongside 447 other horses — or less than half of one percent of all he has measured. He was taller and had a longer body than Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat. Seaman found him more aerodynamic than three previous Triple Crown champions as well as most of the other horses in his top tier. American Pharoah’s biomechanics were optimally suited for distances from one mile to a mile and three quarters. He had already proved that he could run on dirt, but Seaman thought he could also be successful racing on turf.
What did surprise Seaman, however, was American Pharoah’s bright mind and serene nature. As he wrapped his tape around his girth, the colt turned and looked curiously at what Seaman was doing. He then swung his head to Dr. William McGee, ninety-eight and the oldest living equine veterinarian, who was in a wheelchair in front of him feeding him carrots.
“Here’s this champion and he acts like the kindest old riding horse,” Seaman said. American Pharoah proved it when Seattle Slew’s jockey, Jean Cruguet, got on his back. He was there, too. Cruguet swung his seventy-six-year-old frame onto the colt’s back and simply marveled: Slew was high-strung and would have never allowed a stranger on his back.
Elizabeth: Any predictions on how long it will take to get our next Triple Crown Champion?
Joe: There’s a reason it took 37 years between Affirmed and American Pharoah – it takes an extraordinary horse and so much luck. The colt needs to remain healthy, needs racing luck, and be able to endure three of the longest races he’ll ever run at three different tracks over five weeks. It’s even harder now to sweep the series because the fields are nearly twice the size in each of the three races and when Affirmed and Secretariat swept they essentially beat the same four or five horses each leg. Now trainers with good horses lay back and wait for the Belmont.
I put the over/under at 8 years and will take the over.
Elizabeth: Which is your favorite race— the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, or the Belmont? Or is that like asking someone to choose among their children?
Joe: They each have their charms, but horse racing is America’s oldest sport and the Derby is the granddaddy of all sporting events. No expertise needed to celebrate our country’s character. Twenty horses going a mile and a quarter before 150,000 people to see who has the fastest horse. When it’s over two minutes later or so, only one of them has a chance to contend for a Triple Crown. It’s pretty simple and remarkable.
American Pharoah is available wherever books are sold. Or order online here
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