The bay colt with the abbreviated tail in trainer Bob Baffert's shedrow could have a child's fingers all over his nose and not flinch. He goes about his business so quietly that "you wouldn't even know he was in the barn," said J.B. McKathan, the man who routinely had his mind blown when he put a saddle on the colt who would be champion.
The bay's chestnut counterpart is prone to bringing all of his 1,360 pounds to a dead stop to demand carrots. His 17.2-hand frame is the definition of physical intimidation, even if his spoiled ways confirm that the undefeated son of Big Brown is still maturing.
American Pharoah, the bay, and Dortmund, the chestnut, represent two of the kindest horses in Baffert's care, but they scare almost everyone who has had to come in contact with them on the track.
They destroy, after all, leaving a path of challengers' broken spirits down the stretch. And they have done their worst damage cavalierly, suggesting things could get really frightening should they tap into their full potential.
Never miss a local story.
Both are going to be asked for their best on May 2. Deemed by the masses the most frightful one-two punch to come out of the same barn in recent times, reigning juvenile champion American Pharoah and his unbeaten stablemate Dortmund will vie for role of favorite in the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where each is expected to be the other's toughest obstacle.
Saddling multiple Derby contenders is not unusual for top trainers. Seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher gets looks if he has "only" a couple of entrants each season for the classic (he is set to have four this year), while Baffert has had two or more starters seven times since saddling his first Derby horses in 1996.
However, it's rare to find a set of stablemates with the accomplishments and potential that Zayat Stables' homebred American Pharoah and Kaleem Shah's Dortmund offer.
The former has won four of five career starts, including three Grade I contests, his latest being an 8-length win in the Arkansas Derby on April 11. Dortmund, meanwhile, has done not a single thing wrong with six wins in six starts, including two Grade I triumphs; he toyed with rivals during a 41/4-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 4.
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia called the duo "the best 1-2 punch since Citation and Coaltown," referring to the 1948 Triple Crown hero and his Hall of Fame stablemate. After initially planning to make Dortmund the morning-line Derby favorite "no matter what," Battaglia has now swung back to American Pharoah in the wake of his Arkansas Derby triumph.
Just don't waste breath by asking Baffert whom he favors of the two.
"They're both outstanding 3-year-olds, and I just feel so fortunate. I can't believe I have two horses like that the same year," Baffert said. "They're two different types of horses. (Jockey) Martin (Garcia) works them both, and it's really hard to separate them because they move differently. American Pharoah, he's brilliant. The way he moves, he does it effortlessly. Dortmund, he's big, long, and he's really light on his feet.
"They don't get hot, and they're just really quiet, gentle horses. I just can't believe how fortunate I am to have these two, the big guns."
Like many grand tales in Thoroughbred racing, a certain amount of luck, or fate, played a part in the two horses being in the same barn and sharing the same pressure-cooker journey they are slated for on Saturday. Hindsight reveals that both showed signs at an early age of what lay ahead.
'It was like watching Michael Jordan'
The staff at Taylor Made Farm has had 88 horses come off their farm en route to becoming Grade/Group winners. Yet as yearling manager John Hall joked, it is the horses with the most problems who sometimes take up the most space in one's memory.
An exception to that is Hall's recollection of when a son of Pioneerof the Nile came to Taylor Made as a newly turned yearling, having been born at Tom VanMeter's Stockplace Farm. During months of prepping for the auction ring on behalf of owner Ahmed Zayat, Hall said it was obvious that the colt later named American Pharoah had the intangible that gives horsemen chills.
"We go through so many horses, but he always stood out," Hall said. "He was a well-made horse with a great mind, just a super nice individual. Everything he did, it was like he had done it before. This is one colt who never had any problems. We just loved him."
Zayat still loved him too, which is why buyers at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Select Yearling sale found themselves up against it when the bidding started for Hip No. 85. Ultimately, Zayat himself ended up buying American Pharoah back for $300,000 through agent David Ingordo, then turned down offers from suitors asking whether a deal could be done privately.
"I give Zayat a lot of credit, he always believed in the horse and ... he put a kind of premium price on him," said Mark Taylor of Taylor Made Farm. "The way (American Pharoah) moved down through there, it was just different than all the other horses.
"You go through and look at 50 yearlings on the farm, and when he came out, it was like watching Michael Jordan walk through there. That was always his calling card."
Like the Taylors, the Mc Kathan Brothers barely have enough time in a year to run down the number of top-level horses they have broken and trained at their Ocala. Fla.-based operation.
J.B. and Kevin McKathan's relationship with Baffert dates to the days when they prepped his eventual Kentucky Derby winners Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998). Consider then the weight that comes with J.B. McKathan saying he considers American Pharoah the fastest he has ever saddled.
"The first time we worked him, he just ran like the wind and it was crazy," he said. "He's the kind of horse where every time we worked him it gave you a stomachache because he was so fast.
"After the first time I breezed him with a horse, I never breezed him with a horse again, because he was too fast. I didn't have anything to keep up with him, and I didn't want him to try and outrun anything. He was something else."
At the same time the McKathans were working with American Pharoah, they had two other Zayat-owned horses in their care, future graded stakes winner El Kabeir and Grade I-placed Mr. Z — both of whom are slated to join their old paddock mate in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
J.B. McKathan can't confirm a rumored story about Mr. Z being the one who ate a chunk of American Pharoah's tail off. "I don't know who did it, to be honest," he laughed.
He can absolutely confirm that he expected nothing short of brilliance from the colt who has now won his last four starts by a combined 221/4 lengths.
"El Kabeir trained awesome, Mr. Z trained awesome. But if I robbed a bank, I know which one I'd jump on," J.B. McKathan said of American Pharoah. "We pretty much knew he was the 'A' team when he left the farm. Actually, way before that."
'A spoiled brat'
Our Josephina is an amazon of a mare. Standing over 17 hands, the daughter of Tale of the Cat convinced owner/breeder/trainer Emilie Gerlinde Fojan she would one day produce a foal worthy of her rock star physique.
The big hooves from the foal coming out of the mare on Feb. 7, 2012, were the first sign that Dortmund doesn't enter a scene quietly. Within a few minutes of hitting the ground, the chestnut baby jumped up and stood like it was nothing — another sign that he was going to get a handle on his large frame faster than anyone anticipated.
"You wait 11 months and you foal them out and ... you have such an emotional attachment," said Fojan, who bred and raised Dortmund at her Bona Terra Farm. "When I first saw him, I cried my eyes out, and he was rubbing on me and I was scratching him. He was just ... special."
Since Fojan breeds primarily to race rather than for auction, she followed her heart in coming up with the mating that produced Dortmund.
Though Big Brown hasn't been a huge hit commercially, Fojan loved the freakish ability the 2008 Kentucky Derby winner showed on the track and adored the influx of blood from legendary sire Northern Dancer the pairing offered.
One immediate way Dortmund took after his sire was in his balanced build. Through growth spurt after growth spurt, Dortmund maintained an agility that belies his massive size.
"I feel good about him because he never had an awkward stage," Fojan said. "I have baby pictures, I have yearling pictures, and he always stayed the same. He was always a well-built horse."
Because Dortmund was so big, Fojan would take him swimming as a yearling on her lakefront property to help with his conditioning. When she took him to auction the first couple times, however, she found many buyers were scared off by his size, even if they could find no obvious fault in his makeup.
As a weanling, Dortmund failed to meet his reserve after bringing a final bid of $85,000 at the 2012 Keene land November Breeding Stock sale. At the 2013 Fasig-Tipton July yearling sale, James Chapman's Breaking Point Farm bought the colt for $90,000, then sold him at the 2014 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale to Donato Lanni. Lanni bought Dortmund on behalf of current owner Kaleem Shah for $140,000.
"It was actually not hard (to sell him) because I would never have done what Baffert would have done," Fojan said. "He was so big, I would have not run him as a 2-year-old. When you have that big of a horse, you wait and baby them."
Once in Baffert's care, Dortmund showed remarkable precocity for his size, winning his career debut going 61/2 furlongs at Santa Anita Park last November by 43/4 lengths. When he stretched out to a mile the next time out, on Nov. 29 at Churchill Downs, he barely took a deep breath during his 73/4-length victory.
Baffert's assistant, Jimmy Barnes, carried a handful of carrots in his pocket that evening in case the big colt got demanding. Fojan takes the blame for giving in to Dortmund's whims.
Getting his expected 19 rivals, including his champion comrade, to cave on the first Saturday in May will take all the force the giant can muster.
"He figured it out in his last race. He finally figured out racing, because he was always just doing enough to not let the horse get by," Fojan said. "He's in such good hands. They've done an amazing job, because they did get a spoiled brat."