Q&A: A New York Times Reporter Tells the Inside Story of Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah

When American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes last June, he became the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown. New York Times sports writer Joe Drape documented the drama in the news pages as it unfolded.  Now, he is telling the inside story, in his new book, American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise (Hachette Books).

With his deep knowledge of horse racing, and sharp eye for detail, Drape weaves a compelling narrative from an unlikely cast of characters around an even more unlikely four-legged hero: a big bay stallion of undistinguished lineage.

Drape has a historic story to tell — there may not be another Triple Crown winner for decades — and he has turned it into a page-turner that should appeal to horse racing fans and non-fans alike.

Drape answered questions about the book, horse racing, and American Pharoah's surprising personality, among other subjects, from The National.

Q: Even though readers know that American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, your book is very suspenseful. How did you structure it to capture the drama of the story?

A: I structured it as a biography, as silly as that might seem for a horse. And for the first (and probably last) time in my writing life, I was able to open with a sex scene. I started with his father and mother [Pioneerof the Nile and Littleprincessemma] mating because not only is it a fascinating piece of choreography, but I wanted to show the dreamy aspect of breeders in the face of impossible odds. There were 25,000 foals born in American Pharoah’s crop and only 20 can make it to the gate of the Kentucky Derby. There was far more suspense, and luck, and magic just getting him there, and that no one knew about. Even me, and I was covering the Triple Crown in real time for the newspaper.

And that’s when the people in the story, who are absolutely vital to the narrative, began their relationship with American Pharoah and, as relationships do, they evolved. Ahmed Zayat, for example, whose first encounter with the greatest horse he will ever own was in Saratoga, when he tried to sell him. He needed cash to get out of a bankruptcy, but Pharoah banged his ankle on the days leading to the sale and no one wanted to buy him. At the time Zayat thought he was cursed, but it was actually the luckiest thing that ever happened to him.

Q: A championship horse has a unique sort of career compared with athletes in any other sport. That makes an assessment of his/her greatness very difficult, especially with a horse like American Pharoah, who competed against one generation of 3-year-olds, plus one other race (Breeders Cup) against older horses. Does that make it hard to evaluate American Pharoah’s place in history?

A: Look, we debate stars of different eras in all sports. In the case of American Pharoah, I’d argue that it is pretty cut and dry. There have been only 12 Triple Crown Champions in nearly 200 years. Those 12, in my opinion, are the pantheon. American Pharoah belongs in the same sentence as Secretariat, Sir Barton, Affirmed, Assault, Seattle Slew and all the rest of them. It’s a difficult feat to achieve and there is a reason we waited 37 years for it.

Q: Can you explain why American Pharoah was able to win the Belmont when a dozen or so predecessors post-1978 who had won both Derby and Preakness could not? Greatness or luck?

A: Both. He was identified as a perfectly engineered thoroughbred at 3 months old by Frances Rellihan, the woman charged with raising him. He was balanced, smart, and possessed a perfect skeletal structure and stride. Horsemen who had a part in developing him said he was the most talented horse they had ever had long before he had his first race.

They shared in his success and made the right decisions on how to handle him along the way. And they were lucky that he wasn’t sold by Zayat, and that the jockey, Victor Espinoza, landed on him. He was trainer Bob Baffert’s fifth choice. That meant four riders ahead of him didn’t like him or were unavailable to ride him. That’s luck.

Q: Secretariat had unmatched equine athletic skill. Forgo and Seabiscuit had legendary grit and determination. John Henry was said to have so much racetrack savvy he was almost like a second jockey. Seattle Slew had ultra-competiveness. What in particular did American Pharoah do so well that he achieved greatness?  What was he only average or above average at?

A: He was an extraordinarily engineered runner. His stride was perfect and unencumbered. He had a vascular system that rivaled Secretariat. His airways were clear and clean. I’m not making this up – all these things were measured and weighed against a database with several hundred thousand horses, including champions here and in Europe. American Pharoah was super smart and gentle. There were no holes in his resume.

Q: In winning the Triple Crown, American Pharoah elevated the sport and enhanced its visibility. Will this feat win new enthusiasts for horse racing, and will it make up for some of the charges against the sport made by critics --  about breakdowns, doping and mistreatment, particularly at the more cash-strapped tracks around the country?

A: American Pharoah put Victor Espinoza on “Dancing With the Stars,” which is about as mainstream as you can get. He put horse racing back in the national sports conversation. I wrote most of the stories about the institutional doping and mistreatment that still exist in the sport. There are trainers that treat horse racing as welfare and abuse these majestic animals on a daily basis. It’s sick and should not be excused.

Until they are arrested and taken out in a perp walk, it will go on. It’s going on less and less, but there should be zero tolerance. I say this and I mean this: horse racing is an easy sport to love, but too often a hard one to like. I bump against that conflict every day, and I’m never going to stop trying to clean it up. The story of American Pharoah should make people in and out of the sport understand how magical it can be.

Q: From what you’ve observed watching American Pharoah around the barn and on the track, and from your reporting, what can you discern about American Pharoah’s personality? Is he mild and gentle (for a thoroughbred male), or is he a Type A? How much did his personality figure in his success?

Here’s an anecdote from the book:

The following morning, Cecil Seaman visited American Pharoah outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. He took his tape measure out and began stretching and wrapping around various parts of the colt’s body – fifteen specific measurements in all - as he has done for more than 108,000 Thoroughbreds, including the previous four Triple Crown champions, over forty- five years. It had already been established that American Pharoah's stride reached 26 feet and he could cover approximately 55 feet per second. Seaman, a bloodstock consultant, had developed a system to evaluate the biomechanics of Thoroughbreds. Among his comprehensive database were the measurements of 850 champions, 2,000 G1 winners, 750 earners of at least $1 million, 50 Kentucky Derby victors and over 25 winners each of the Epsom Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Seaman was hardly surprised that American Pharoah graded out A + in his system alongside 447 other horses — or less than half of one percent of all he has measured. He was taller and had a longer body than Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat. Seaman found him more aerodynamic than three previous Triple Crown champions as well as most of the other horses in his top tier. American Pharoah’s biomechanics were optimally suited for distances from one mile to a mile and three quarters. He had already proved that he could run on dirt, but Seaman thought he could also be successful racing on turf.

What did surprise Seaman, however, was American Pharoah’s bright mind and serene nature. As he wrapped his tape around his girth, the colt turned and looked curiously at what Seaman was doing. He then swung his head to Dr. William McGee, ninety-eight and the oldest living equine veterinarian, who was in a wheelchair in front of him feeding him carrots.

“Here’s this champion and he acts like the kindest old riding horse,” Seaman said. American Pharoah proved it when Seattle Slew’s jockey, Jean Cruguet, got on his back. He was there, too. Cruguet swung his seventy-six-year-old frame onto the colt’s back and simply marveled: Slew was high-strung and would have never allowed a stranger on his back.