American Pharoah Makes it a Night to Remember

American Pharoah made his way through the crowd at Churchill Downs on Saturday night. Photo by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

American Pharoah made his way through the crowd at Churchill Downs on Saturday night. Photo by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

There have been special days aplenty since the inaugural Kentucky Derby was run at a track then known as the Louisville Jockey Club in May 1875.  Some marvelous nights have followed, too.

But with the passing of a little time, last Saturday’s Downs After Dark celebration at Churchill Downs could require creation of an event category all its own.

Through its 34 runnings, the Stephen Foster Handicap has grown from a fledgling $25,000 stakes race to a $500,000 Grade I racing event that is among the best races for older horses in the United States. This year the Foster offered a carrot to participants of a guaranteed spot in the starting gate for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, along with the spotlight of a national telecast on the NBCSN network.

So, with a talented group of the nation’s best older racing stars on-hand, the Foster would have been the center of a good night at Churchill Downs in any case.

But it was the presence of one special horse that took the evening into the realm of the unforgettable.

Six weeks after he had won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, Zayat Stable’s American Pharoah – the horse that accomplished the first sweep of the Triple Crown in 37 years – paraded before nearly 29,000 adoring fans. His appearance under the Twin Spires – which glowed in purple on this night to honor visiting Breeders’ Cup officials – made Churchill Downs THE place to be on Saturday, June 13.

Many of American Pharoah’s growing throng of admirers who gathered at the home of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday had traveled many miles to catch a glimpse of the instant legend. I’ve  heard tales of people who had driven from New Orleans, Alabama and Georgia for a chance to see and cheer racing’s new hero, but those stories only scratched the surface.

As has been the case in a seven-racing winning streak that now includes the first sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Blemont Stakes since 1978, American Pharoah and his team did not disappoint.

An essential part of recent Stephen Foster tradition is the presentation of the engraved winner’s trophies to the owner, trainer, jockey and breeder of the Kentucky Derby winner. The trophies they first held on Derby Day now bear their names and that of their marvelous horse, and all members of the American Pharoah team showed up with family members and friends on Saturday.

That history-making group included Ahmed Zayat, who had come so close to winning the roses with runner-up finishes in three Kentucky Derbys and on this special night accepted both the solid gold trophy earned by the winning owner and the smaller sterling silver trophy for having bred his superstar; trainer Bob Baffert, now a winner of four editions of the “Run for the Roses” and, after three near-misses, the trainer of a Triple Crown winner; and jockey Victor Espinoza, who became the seventh three-time Kentucky Derby-winning rider and only the sixth to win back-to-back Derbys with rides aboard 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome and now the 2015 Triple Crown winner.  Also throw in Jimmy Barnes – Baffert’s assistant trainer and the man who has spent most of his waking moments with the colt since American Pharoah’s arrival at Churchill Downs just over a week before Derby 141.

After American Pharoah paraded in front of the transfixed on-track throng and a national television audience watching the events on NBCSN, he visited the paddock during the running of the Regret Stakes and, on his way back to the barn, joined members of his team for a quick photo in the G.H. Mumm Winner’s Circle.

That moment was another display of American Pharoah’s incredible demeanor, a gentle nature away from the races that belies his on-track domination and excellence. The combination of traits has made the colt, at least for the moment, a trending figure in American pop culture.

“He’s a baby,” Baffert said on a radio interview earlier in the day, “but he’s also a badass.”

After American Pharoah left the winner’s circle for his journey back to the barn, fans were entertained by joyous reactions by Zayat and Baffert when they accepted their trophies, and an off-the-charts impromptu dance party as each hoisted the (yet-to-be-engraved) Triple Crown trophy.

My professional connection to Churchill Downs and the Derby dates to 1982, and I have been a member of the track’s team since 1997. There is a long list of moments and memories at the track that I’ll treasure until my final day on the planet, and it’s a sure thing that this celebration will be near the top of my personal favorites – regardless of what happens down the road.

Stephen Foster Handicap night was magical – just like the horse in the center of the spotlight.

And here’s even better news: As we celebrated the historic accomplishments of American Pharoah, it is my firm belief that we have yet to see the best from the Derby and Triple Crown winner. So let us hope for continued good health for the horse and good luck and goodwill to those who have so generously shared him with fans since his Kentucky Derby triumph.

By the time you read this, American Pharoah will have headed back home to Baffert’s Southern California base for a while. But plans for the rest of his career, if all goes well, call for a return to Kentucky for Keeneland’s first Breeders’ Cup World Champions on the last two days of October.

One of my favorite movies is “My Favorite Year,” which has nothing to do with horse racing but everything to do with smiles.

We’re not quite there yet, but there’s a very good chance that the journey of American Pharoah could make that a fitting title for 2015.  We still have six months to go, of course, but if there’s any lesson that should have been learned in the first six months of the year, it is this:

Never underestimate American Pharoah.

Fasten that seatbelt and enjoy what will be, with any luck, an amazing ride to Lexington and the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in October. VT