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American Pharoah Arrives at Keeneland; Team Reflects on Magical Year

For owner Ahmed Zayat, the difference between American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown and winning the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) in his final race is very clear.

"With the Triple Crown, we wanted it for the sport," Zayat said the evening Oct. 27 during the Thoroughbred Charities of America "Evening With Team American Pharoah" fundraiser. "On Saturday, we want it for American Pharoah. We want him to go out on a high note."

Zayat was joined by his son Justin, trainer Bob Baffert, and jockey Victor Espinoza at the event held at Fasig-Tipton. About 250 people attended on a rainy night to raise funds for the TCA, the charitable arm of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association.

There was laughter and emotion. The Zayat Stables' 3-year-old homebred colt by Pioneerof the Nile   will retire after his run in the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Keeneland and stand at Ashford Stud in 2016 as part of a deal made earlier this year with Coolmore.

Baffert reflected on winning the Triple Crown after several near-misses in his career, including when Real Quiet had the lead only to lose by a nose to Victory Gallop in the 1998 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).

"After going through it so many times you start to wonder," Baffert said. "I can remember flying back (to California) with (owner) Mike Pegram and asking him, 'How can you be in front one step before the wire and one step behind after the wire? Mike said, 'It wasn't meant to be.' We've seen it time and time again."

Not only was this year different, there was no doubt when American Pharoah won the Belmont by 5 1/2 lengths over Frosted.

"It was so emotional," Baffert said while choking up. He then lightened the mood: "This horse has made me the biggest crybaby."

Zayat said American Pharoah did more than become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. The horse, he said, changed their lives and humbled them.

"I have a big ego, and Bob has an ego, but everybody was part of something bigger with this horse," Zayat said. "I think he made us all better people. Bob keeps telling me, 'Ahmed, he's a gift from God.' I think I've run out words, honestly, to describe it. You look at it, and we are truly blessed.

"(Racing) was waiting 37 years for a moment like that, and we just happened to be the breeders and owners of the horse."

Justin Zayat was along for the ride when the stable had three horses finish second in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I): Bodemeister   in 2012, Nehro in 2011, and Pioneerof the Nile in 2009. He said he witnessed the ups and downs and would have been happy just winning the first leg of the Triple Crown.

"To get the Kentucky Derby this year, I thought my life was made," he said. "Anything that happened after that was icing on the cake. I never would have fathomed winning the Triple Crown."

Baffert and the Zayats credit Espinoza with doing the little things that carried American Pharoah through a solid, consistent campaign that required multiple cross-country flights. They said he managed to keep something in the tank, when he could, to keep the colt fresh for his next race.

In response to a question from the audience, Espinoza described what set American Pharoah apart from the rest in the Triple Crown bid: He didn't let anything bother him, even a downpour just minutes before the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

"The Preakness was fun because I had never ridden in a race with so much rain," the California-based rider said with a laugh. "When we were warming up it was raining so hard that the other horses had their ears down and were walking sideways. I looked at American Pharoah and he was just having fun."

Baffert suggested it was the ear plugs that kept the water out, but then said: "He's got a great a mind. He just handles things differently."

 

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