A feeling of hope rippled across Bluegrass country, and everywhere else in the world of racing, when at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3 a mare named Kakadu gave birth to the very first foal by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Kakadu delivered the foal three weeks early at Brookdale Farm in Versailles, beating Untouched Talent, who was also in foal to American Pharoah, by 12 days. Thus began one of the most anticipated foaling seasons in decades as the initial offspring of American Pharoah, whose 2015 sweep was the sport’s first in 37 years, quickly multiplied in number.
How quick? Consider these statistics:
Untouched Talent and her baby filly reside at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Versailles, along with 18 other foals by American Pharoah. And Papa is there, too, enjoying life as both a stallion and a tourist attraction.
About 30 miles away, at a farm in Paris, Oussama Aboughazale, a Chilean-based native of Jerusalem, whose family made a fortune exporting fruit, is also stockpiling American Pharoah foals. He now has five of the approximately 100 that have been born so far, including a colt out of the Chilean supermare Amani and the premature colt out of Kakadu, whose name was officially registered last week as First Pharoah.
Aboughazale, who also owns a stud farm in Chile and is a perennial leading owner there, watched all of American Pharoah’s races in 2015 and attended his triumphant final race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He fell hard for the horse, just the way he became smitten with Kentucky when he first visited 20 years ago, and he knew he wanted his own farm where he could indulge those passions.
“I fell in love with him, really, his body, his character, the way he moves, the way he runs. He’s a great horse,” Aboughazale said. “I love Kentucky, too. Everything here is about horses. I feel at home here. The people I know in Kentucky are exactly like me. We speak the same language.”
It was not a coincidence that Aboughazale hired Frances Relihan, a former farm manager who raised American Pharoah, as his bloodstock consultant to help expand his operation at Sumaya Farm, his 230-acre facility in Paris. He and Relihan made a splash at the Keeneland sale in January, spending $1,080,000 for four horses, including $575,000 for Joyfully, who was, naturally, in foal to American Pharoah.
But Aboughazale and Relihan know better than anyone that even though American Pharoah is being paired with top mares, there are no guarantees in horse racing. Of the approximately 22,500 foals born in North America in 2016, only a small number will reach the pinnacle of their sport. No more than 20 will reach the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby, and just 14 make the premier race for fillies, the Oaks.
It is a painstaking process of care and conditioning to get fillies and colts to that level, and it begins at birth.
Relihan already sees many of American Pharoah’s characteristics being passed on to his foals. They generally have mild temperaments, curious minds and strong bodies. Even the premature colt, who was placed on stall rest for the first few months of his life to allow his bones to fully develop, has an athletic build, probably owing to his healthy appetite.
Foaling season in the United States lasts from January to June, and breeding season begins on Feb. 14 and runs to as late as July. A mare’s gestation period on average is 342 days, and within a few hours of being born, a foal can stand and walk into a small paddock with its mother.
“It’s really amazing, and kind of a throwback to nature,” Relihan said, “because if you think about a foal being born in the wild, they have to be up running with the herd within the first several hours, because otherwise they are at risk for predators.”
After about a week, the mare and foal are paired with another mare and foal about the same age in a slightly larger paddock, so the babies can socialize. After 30 days, the mare is then likely to be bred back (Kakadu is now in foal to Empire Maker, American Pharoah’s grandsire), and the foal gets its first taste of separation from his mother.
“The mare generally settles down,” Relihan said. “But I feel sorry for the little guys — they call out for two hours waiting for their mom, but then it’s a great big reunion when she does come home.”
A foal is weaned from its mother on average at about 5 months old. At that point, most foals have become more independent anyway, straying from their mother to play with their peers.
Relihan’s method, used to great success with American Pharoah, is to remove a few mares from the herd each night until there are none left. The foals return to the same stall they were in with their mothers; the mares are relocated to a barn across the farm.
Relihan and the Sumaya Farm manager, Jody Alexander, said that while that method significantly reduced stress on the foals, it was still one of the hardest aspects of their jobs.
“Weaning is the toughest deal, especially when you live on the farm and you hear them hollering at night,” Alexander said. “In the old days, they used to wean them all at once, and it used to be mass chaos.”
Around the same time, the boys and girls are separated, heading off the hormones that begin to kick in after their first birthdays and preparing them for the next stage of their development.
The next step comes when the fillies and colts turn a year old on Jan. 1. Owners will usually decide by April whether to point their charges toward the racetrack or to the yearling sales in the summer and fall. In 2016, about 30 percent of the foal crop was sold at auction.
If the decision is to sell, many owners will enlist the help of a consignor, who preps yearlings for the sale through a process that is part beauty school, part charm school and part boot camp.
Among the best in the business is Taylor Made, which was founded by Joe Taylor, a longtime farm manager, and is now run by his four sons. They pamper the horses, painting and picking their feet, trimming their manes to the length of a dollar bill and shading them from the sun to prevent burns. They build a nutrition and exercise program for them, which includes walking, swimming and taking supplements. Finally, the yearlings are taught how to take orders and how to stand just so for prospective buyers.
If an owner decides to keep a yearling, it then goes to school to learn how to be a racehorse.
Aboughazale leans on Bill Harrigan to break his fillies and colts. He starts teaching them how to be ridden at his Miacomet Farm in Georgetown in September of their yearling year before moving them to Payson Park in Indiantown, Fla., in November for more fundamentals.
Harrigan painstakingly introduces them to equipment like a bridle and a saddle. He bellies them, or perches himself on their back, to get them used to carrying weight. Once they can be ridden, they are taught to gallop and eventually breeze. They are also schooled in the starting gate to put them at ease in a tight space.
Harrigan, who worked with the 2017 Derby entrant Sonateer and the Oaks entrant Vexatious, welcomes the idea of one day working with American Pharoah’s foals.
“There is no absolute rule when you are dealing with Thoroughbreds, but I can tell you 100 percent that if those horses are as classy as he is, that is a big leg up because they will listen to the people that are around them and they will try — and trying is probably the main thing,” he said.
In April, the 2-year-olds graduate and head to the racetrack. Their new trainers will continue their conditioning and plot out a racing plan that centers on first winning a race and then, for exemplary horses, points them toward the 2-year-old Breeders’ Cup races.
Horses that win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or the Juvenile Fillies become early favorites for the Derby and the Oaks the next May. Before those two races, though, there is the heart of the prep season, which sorts out what horseplayers like to refer to as contenders and pretenders.
There are lots of ups and downs along this path, as all involved hope — and, quite literally, pray — that all that preparation will lead to glory at Churchill Downs on the first Friday or Saturday in May.
For now, though, that thrill comes when Aboughazale is outside playing with his horses, especially with his Pharoahs, as he likes to call them. The other day, the Pharoah colt out of Amani, who is known as a diva, bit him on the arm. Aboughazale could not have been happier.
“It shows that he has character,” he said.
Amid all these expectations, American Pharoah will soon head to Australia to breed throughout the fall at the Coolmore farm there for about $50,000 per live foal. (His 2017 fee in the United States has not been disclosed, but he was commanding $200,000 in 2016.) Meanwhile, another Derby star, California Chrome, who stands at Taylor Made, is heading to Aboughazale’s stud farm in Chile.
And as both American Pharoah and California Chrome produce new foals, the process will begin anew.
“It’s just such a grind just to get to the Derby and to win it,” said Scott Calder, the sales and marketing manager at Coolmore. “And that’s why, obviously, there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner in so long. And I hate to say it, it’s extremely selfish, but I kind of hope there’s not another Triple Crown winner for a little while, because every time another horse fails it just shows how special American Pharoah is.”