Keeneland

American Pharoah enjoys kingly reception at Churchill Downs

American Pharoah paraded into the paddock before throngs of fans. "It makes me feel really good about our sport," trainer Bob Baffert said of the Churchill Downs reception.
American Pharoah paraded into the paddock before throngs of fans. "It makes me feel really good about our sport," trainer Bob Baffert said of the Churchill Downs reception. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — Bill Mott has conditioned some of the all-time greats in the sport of Thoroughbred racing. Yet last Sunday, he was just another fan on the Belmont Park backstretch, grinning ear to ear while asking fellow trainer Bob Baffert if he could get close to the gleaming bay colt, American Pharoah.

Buff Bradley has trained a champion and taken on the world's richest race. This week, the Frankfort-based horseman was among the starstruck admirers outside Barn 33 on the Churchill Downs backstretch.

That's the power of American Pharoah now. It doesn't matter if one is a casual observer who only tuned into the sport for the first time at 6:52 p.m. on June 6, or a longtime industry participant who has helped shape the game as we know it. Everyone is an awestruck fan of the colt.

The first Triple Crown winner in 37 years united 28,968 in attendance in collective admiration at Churchill Downs on Saturday night. Shortly after the fifth race on the "Downs After Dark" card concluded, American Pharoah stepped onto the surface with the same bright energy he flaunted during his win in the Belmont Stakes one week prior and was greeted with a similar round of track-shaking noise.

On an evening that featured four graded stakes, including the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, everything was dwarfed by the appearance of the champion colt.

Fans packed the Churchill seats. One woman held a sign by the paddock declaring her seven-hour drive from Michigan to see American Pharoah. And as the colt walked down the Churchill stretch and then into the paddock, cameras formed a wall as the crowd greeted every stride with shrieks.

"To me this is special. It makes me feel really good about our sport," Baffert said of the Churchill reception. "It just shows you that this horse, there is a spiritual thing about this horse. People really appreciate this horse.

"He brought people in. The country, they watch these races every year, hoping. And not only did he win it (the Triple Crown), it was the way he did it. He did it with authority."

The only thing matching the outpouring from the Churchill Downs stands was the emotion of owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat and his family.

Upon seeing American Pharoah's jockey Victor Espinoza, Zayat hoisted him to the sky in a bear hug. When the connections were each presented with their official Kentucky Derby winning trophies and handed the Triple Crown hardware to grasp again, Zayat twirled with the silver dish above his head before pointing the crowd and sparking another frenzy.

"It's just so humbling. It's what you do it for," Zayat beamed. "At the end of the day, it's all about American Pharoah, and I mean, he is one hell of a horse."

American Pharoah's influence is spreading far beyond the Thoroughbred industry. He is slated to be featured in the next issue of Vogue. His connections can not leave the house anymore without a well wisher crossing their paths.

"We walk in the streets and people are clapping and yelling," said Justin Zayat, son of Ahmed Zayat and racing and stallion manager for Zayat Stables. "I never thought about how big it would be until it happened."

The hope now is for an encore that is equally as brilliant.

American Pharoah is set to ship back to California on June 18. The promise from Zayat and Baffert is that the son of Pioneerof the Nile will reappear for the masses again on the track, with the Grade I Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park Aug. 2 the leading candidate for his post-Triple Crown race debut.

"He looks absolutely awesome," Ahmed Zayat said. "We owe it to the fans that they see their champion."

With a deal already in place for American Pharoah to enter stud at Ashford Stud, likely at the conclusion of his 3-year-old season, the risk/reward of keeping him in training is inescapable. Zayat has said "We're not thinking about value or money" with regards to the colt's future, but there are financial factors in play, not the least of which the cost of insurance for such a high-profile runner.

Terms of American Pharoah's stud deal and details of his insurance coverage have not been disclosed. Though he himself does not have primary knowledge of American Pharoah's coverage, Matthew Delehanty of Lavin Insurance explains that — from an insurance standpoint — American Pharoah's basic options are no different than any other horse and likely include insurance against mortality, permanent infertility and first-season infertility.

"If you have a Mercedes and I have a Cadillac and your neighbor has a Dodge Neon, you're still buying the same thing," Delehanty said. "What does separate high-value horses like War Front, Tapit and American Pharoah from other, less valuable horses are not the coverages they are eligible for, but how many different insurance companies have to share the risk."

Insurance companies decide their limit on any one horse, Delehanty said, and few can take more than $5 million. It's likely several insurance companies are working together collecting premiums, he explained.

Delehanty adds that placing a value on American Pharoah "is complex because the purchase price may not reflect his true value and values fluctuate dramatically."

Once stud fees are set his value can be estimated, but still unanswered is whether American Pharoah will ever be pushed enough to know just how good he can be.

"What he's done is he's just shown us that he is so much better than we really thought he was," Baffert said. "He's just getting keyed up now. He's just getting better."

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