Zayat Stables’ champion American Pharoah jogged on Churchill Downs’ main track Friday morning for the first time since his triumph in the June 6 Belmont Stakes (GI) where he became racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile went to the track at approximately 6:45 am ET with exercise rider Jorge Alvarez in the irons.
“He went great,” Alvarez said. “He still feels the same. It’s amazing how this horse does it.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert flew in from California on Thursday night with his wife Jill and son Bode to oversee the horse’s training, and liked what he saw from racing’s newest Triple Crown winner.
“It’s amazing what he’s been through and it looks like he’s starting to get even better now,” Baffert said. “I can tell that during the past 60 days he’s grown and is starting to fill out. I’m just happy to see that he’s still happy an enjoying what he’s doing. He’s just an incredible animal. I guess you have to be incredible to do what he has accomplished.
“I still can’t believe the sign on this wall,” he said in reference to the new ‘American Pharoah 2015 Triple Crown Winner’ sign posted outside his Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. “It’s just been really special. He did it with authority and everyone that I’ve talked to, I think people felt different about this horse. I felt that it was time. (Assistant trainer) Jimmy Barnes and I felt that if we’re ever going to do it, it would be with this horse. We had never gone to the Belmont really feeling it; we were nervous but it was a good nervous. The way he travelled to Belmont and the way he was breezing here, he doesn’t have to take his racetrack with him. He can overcome any obstacle you throw at him.”
Baffert relived the moment that American Pharoah made history in last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes.
“When he turned for home, the best feeling was probably watching Victor [Espinoza] sitting on him with so much. He’s got a mile-and-a-quarter and he’s just breezing. I’m thinking ‘Wow, look at this horse,’ and then I see Frosted coming at him and then Victor just still hasn’t asked him. It was like Frank Mirahmadi’s call at Oaklawn where he said, ‘Victor hasn’t asked him, but we all know the answer.’ He just turned them loose and I sat back and took in the crowd noise.
“He’s a baby and a beast at the same time. You have a horse that is this sweet and kind, but then when he gets to the track he wants to dominate. For the horse, I was so happy for him and when they hit the wire he was still just so full of horse. I told Victor before the race, ‘I think he’s really, really good.’ Once Victor got on his back he looked at me like he could feel it.”
Baffert went on to discuss the future of American Pharoah and named some potential spots where the Triple Crown winner could make his next start.
“My goal is to bring him back to Kentucky and I’m sure you all want to see him run in the (Oct. 31) Breeders’ Cup (Classic),” Baffert said. “I just want to keep him on that level. There are some obvious spots. You got the Haskell, the Jim Dandy, Saratoga, Del Mar. I don’t want to get ahead of myself but I’ve talked to (racing manager) Justin Zayat; they have their ideas and I have my ideas so we’re basically just going to sit down and I have to see how this horse responds. Sometimes it takes as much as two weeks to see what kind of affect a race has on him. If you see him show up, then he’s really going to perform in a big way.
“To me, I feel more pressure training him now. I feel like wrapping him in bubble wrap. What I want to do is just want to share him with everyone. When we go back to California they’ll probably have something for him there and then when we go to Del Mar, they’ll have something for him there. I wish I was around Secretariat. As a kid, I would have loved to pet him and touch him and get close to him. I got to go up to him and touch him and I’ll always remember greatness like that. I’m his trainer but at the same time I’m like a little kid. I knew he was great but he really had to show it.”
Later that morning, Baffert was greeted by 98-year-old Dr. William McGee, one of the founders of Haygard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, who has seen and treated several Triple Crown winners. Baffert brought American Pharoah out of his stall at 8:15 a.m. so that the retired veterinarian could get a glimpse of yet another Triple Crown champion.
“I think his temperament is outstanding,” McGee commented. “I’ve never seen one that had the calm attitude that he had. He’s a people’s kind of horse. A lot of people think that the Triple Crown should be broken up, but it’s a supreme test of ability and endurance. I don’t have the authority to judge whether it should be changed, but it seems to be doing pretty well. I’m enthusiastic about this horse. He’s come a long so well and I attribute a lot to the handling he’s gotten. He takes good care of him and they’ve given him rest when he needed him. I’m looking for [him to have] a great stud career, too.”
AMERICAN PHAROAH SCHEDULED TO GALLOP SATURDAY MORNING AT 8:30 A.M. – After consultation with assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes and exercise rider George Alvarez, trainer Bob Baffert plans to gallop American Pharoah on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. after the renovation break. “He’s ready to gallop, boss,” Alvarez said.
AMERICAN PHAROAH TO BE PARADED SATURDAY NIGHT AT CHURCHILL DOWNS – While the barn area remains secured and closed to the public, fans will get their chance to salute horse racing’s newest rock star Saturday night when American Pharoah will be paraded on the main track after the fifth race around 8 p.m. (all times Eastern) during Churchill Downs’ 11-race “Downs After Dark” presented by Stella Artois and Finlandia Vodka.
Owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat and his family, Baffert and his family and jockey Victor Espinoza will be on hand to accept their engraved Kentucky Derby 141 trophies in a G.H. MUMM Winner’s Circle ceremony scheduled immediately after Race 6 at 8:32 p.m.
General admission is $10 and gates open Saturday at 5 p.m. with the first race scheduled for 6 p.m. The evening’s theme is “White Party,” so guests are encouraged to wear their best summer whites.
American Pharoah is scheduled to return to his Southern California base on Thursday.
FREE AMERICAN PHAROAH TRIPLE CROWN PRINT TO FIRST 5,000 FANS ON SATURDAY – Thanks to a partnership between Churchill Downs Racetrack and Courier-Journal, the first 5,000 fans in attendance Saturday night will receive a free commemorative print of American Pharoah that celebrates his Triple Crown achievement. The stirring photo of the print was taken by Courier-Journal photographer Michael Clevenger. The shot was taken from underneath the inside rail and depicts jockey Victor Espinoza looking back at his seven rivals following his 5 ½-length Belmont Stakes triumph with a ravenous crowd in the background. Churchill Downs admission gates open Saturday at 5 p.m. and the first of 11 races is 6 p.m.
GET YOUR PHOTO WITH THE KENTUCKY DERBY TROPHIES AND TRIPLE CROWN TROPHY – Fans in attendance at Churchill Downs on Saturday will be able to take pictures with American Pharoah’s engraved Kentucky Derby 141 trophies as well as the soon-to-be-engraved Triple Crown trophy. The trophies will be on display on the north side of the paddock in the Plaza area from 5-7 p.m. for guests to take their own pictures.
NBCSN, HRRN TO BROADCAST LIVE FROM CHURCHILL DOWNS SATURDAY FROM 8-10 P.M. – NBCSN, which airs on Time Warner Cable channels 549 and 971 (HD) in Louisville, AT&T U-verse channels 640 and 1640 (HD) and DISH Network channel 159, will be onsite Saturday for a live “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In” broadcast from 8-10 p.m. ET. The two-hour telecast will showcase Triple Crown winner American Pharoah being paraded on-track and three stakes races: the Regret, Fleur de Lis Handicap and Stephen Foster Handicap. Laffit Pincay III, Randy Moss, Jerry Bailey, Donna Brothers and Kenny Rice comprise the on-air talent team.
Additionally, Mike Penna and Ellis Star of Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN) will air coverage of the three stakes races from 8-10 p.m. ET on 93.9 The Ville in Louisville as well as Sirius 92 and online at www.horseracingradio.net.
LEA FAVORED IN FOSTER, BUT COULD BE LONELY IN WINNER’S CIRCLE – A victory by Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Lea in Saturday’s $500,000 Stephen Foser Handicap Presented by GE (Grade I) would be among the most notable moments at Churchill Downs in the history of the Paris, Ky. farm that is an icon in both American breeding and racing.
But should Lea make it to the winner’s circle for the 34th running of the Grade I race and Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In Classic Division” event, the 6-year-old homebred son of First Samurai could glance around the G.H. Mumm Winner’s Circle and feel a little lonely.
That’s because the Hancock family that has guided Claiborne Farm for more than a century will also be focused on another celebration that evening. Allison Hancock, the daughter of longtime Claiborne President Seth Hancock and wife Debbie, will be married Saturday evening in the Bourbon County city. Among others attending the wedding will be the bride’s 25-year-old brother, Walker, who succeeded his father as Claiborne’s president in early 2014 and represents the fourth generation of the Hancock family to run the farm.
“The wedding was planned a good while back, well before we hand any thoughts that Lea might run in the Foster,” the younger Hancock said. “So we’ll enjoy the wedding and hope for good news at Churchill.”
It’s probably a safe bet that a few seconds after the bride says “I do,” members of the family will at least glance at their smartphones.
The lightly-raced Lea, who is trained by Hall of Famer and all-time Churchill Downs win leader Bill Mott, will look to follow a path similar to the one taken in 2010 by Claiborne and Dilschneider’s Blame. He won the Stephen Foster and returned to Churchill Downs later in the year to hold off the previously unbeaten Zenyatta and win the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. Should Lea win on Saturday, a run in this year’s Classic at Keeneland would seem a logical goal.
Lea will be ridden by Joel Rosario, who has been in the saddle for his last four races. He will carry 120 pounds, one fewer than high weight and 2014 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) winner Hoppertunity, and will start from post two.
The Stephen Foster will be Lea’s first since a third-place run behind Prince Bishop and 2014 Kentucky Derby winner and Horse of the Year California Chrome in the $10 million Dubai World Cup (GI) at Meydan Race Course in late March. Prior to his Dubai journey, Lea had run second to Constitution in the Donn Handicap (GI) after earning second consecutive victory in the Grade III Hal’s Hope, both at Gulfstream Park. Lea secured his most notable career triumph in the 2013 Donn, where he downed 2013 3-year-old champion and Clark Handicap winner Will Take Charge, but various illnesses kept him out of action for the rest of that year.
Several U.S. stars of the Dubai Gold Cup have returned to action at home in the Stephen Foster. Victory Gallop (1999), Street Cry (2002) and Curlin (2008) won the Foster following runs in Dubai, with Street Cry and Curlin winning both races.
Hancock would be thrilled if Lea could follow Victory Gallop’s path of a third-place finish in Dubai followed by a Foster victory in which the 4-year-old colt the current Churchill Downs record for 1 1/8 miles. Victory Gallop’s foes that day included 1997 Kentucky Derby winner and 1998 Dubai World Cup winner Silver Charm, who finished fourth in what would be the final race of his Hall of Fame career.
“There are plenty of horses that have run well there and have come back to run well here,” Hancock said. “We’re pleased with the way he’s come back from Dubai. There’s never really an ‘easy spot’ for a horse to come back in when you have a horse like Lea. Much will be expected of him, but we hope we’ve put him in a good spot and hopefully he’ll run to his ability.”
Although his career record includes only 16 races and a record of 7-3-3, Lea has made the most of that limited action over five seasons and has earned $1,898,618. His win total includes a Churchill Downs allowance race on the main track and a victory in the 2012 Commonwealth Turf (GIII) over the Matt Winn Turf Course. He also ran second to two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in the 2013 Firecracker Handicap (GII) on the Churchill Downs grass.
Claiborne’s ultimate hope is that Lea will have done enough this year and throughout his racings days to become a prominent member of the farm’s stallion roster.
“We’re looking forward to having him here as a stallion and we’re just trying to win as many Grade Is as we possibly can,” Hancock said. “Our choices [for Lea’s return race] were the Foster or the Met Mile, but we think a mile-and-an-eighth is probably a better distance for him and that played heavily in our decision.
“He’s got an enticing pedigree with Galileo on the bottom and Giant’s Causeway, through First Samurai, on top. He’s very versatile and runs on turf or dirt, and it looks like he could probably run at any distance, too.”
So a Grade I win in the Stephen Foster would mean much to Lea’s racing career and his future as a stallion, but a win on Saturday would also carry historical significance for Claiborne Farm. It would be the farm’s 32nd stakes win at Churchill Downs, which would lift it into a tie with Calumet Farm, another Kentucky racing legend, for the most stakes wins at the Louisville track.
STEPHEN FOSTER UPDATES – Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider’s Lea galloped 1 ¼ miles Friday morning under exercise rider Penny Gardiner in preparation for Saturday’s $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (GI) where he is the 7-5 morning line favorite. The son of First Samurai is trained by Churchill Downs all-time leading trainer Bill Mott who was pleased with the way the horse trained.
“Seemed to be moving well and seemed to be happy,” Mott said. “His works have been good. He’s been training at Saratoga and his works, we think, have been very good and steady.”
The Stephen Foster will be Lea’s first race back since his third-place effort in the Dubai World Cup (GI) behind eventual winner Prince Bishop and last year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (GI) winner California Chrome.
“The timing and distance for this race worked out well and he’s won over this racetrack before so hopefully that’s a good indicator that he’ll run well,” Mott said.
Lea’s only start over the Churchill Downs main track was in June 2013 when he won an allowance optional claiming event that came off the turf. Mott isn’t the least bit concerned about how Lea will bounce back off his performance in Dubai.
“I’ve had three of the horses that I have taken to Dubai who have come back and become champions,” Mott said. “Cigar came back and was champion at the end of the year. Royal Delta went to Dubai twice and didn’t win but she became champion both years. If you’ve got a tired, worn out, old horse then it’s going to be too much but I don’t think we can make a general statement that they can’t come back.”
Mott is not thinking much about the rest of the year with Lea, but would likely run the horse in the $1.25 million Whitney Handicap (GI) on Aug. 8 at Saratoga if he performs well.
“I’m not planning too far ahead, I’m taking things race by race,” he said. “Naturally if we run well here, I’d like to go up to Saratoga and run in the Whitney and then just take things from there.”
Also on the track this morning was WinStar Farm’s Commissioner, the 3-1 morning line second-choice who is coming off a victory in the Pimlico Special (GIII). The 4-year-old son of A.P. Indy galloped 1 3/8 miles on the main track this morning with Adele Bellinger in the irons.
“He felt awesome this morning,” Bellinger said.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent out his pair of Stephen Foster contenders: Michael Pegram’s Hoppertunity, winner of last year’s Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare (GI) and Michael Lund Petersen’s Cat Burglar for training this morning at 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., respectively. Exercise rider Jorge Alvarez was in the irons for both horses.
John C. Oxley’s Noble Bird, second last time out in the Alysheba (GII) on May 1, galloped one mile this morning under exercise rider Will Cano for trainer Mark Casse.
Gallant Stables’ Majestic Harbor galloped 1 ¼ miles on the main track with Luis Rodriguez for trainer Paul McGee.
James and Ywachetta Driver’s Paganol galloped one mile at Churchill Downs’ Trackside on Friday morning.
The field for the 2015 Stephen Foster Handicap (from the rail out with jockey, assigned weight and morning line odds): Commissioner (Javier Castellano, 120, 3-1), Lea (Joel Rosario, 120, 7-5), Paganol (Robby Albarado, 114, 20-1), Noble Bird (Shaun Bridgmohan, 116, 10-1), Hoppertunity (Martin Garcia, 121, 5-2), Majestic Harbor (Corey Lanerie, 115, 12-1) and Cat Burglar (Victor Espinoza, 116, 8-1).
TAKE CHARGE BRANDI AND MR. Z ON COMEBACK TRAIL – Willis Horton’s Champion Two-Year-Old Filly Take Charge Brandi galloped on the main track Friday morning for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. A non-displaced bone chip in her right knee was found before last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner was scheduled to start in the Rebel (GII) in March at Oaklawn, which forced her to miss 60 days of training.
"She’s doing fine,” Lukas said. “We’ve got a routine getting her fit and everything but were just moving her along to get her fit enough for some serious works.”
Lukas is targeting the $500,000 Test (GI) on Aug. 8 at Saratoga for Take Charge Brandi’s return. The daughter of Giant’s Causeway last raced when she won the Martha Washington at Oaklawn on Jan. 31.
“We’d like to make the Test, it’s on our radar,” Lukas said. “It’d be a nice starting point. It’s a Grade I and it’s seven-eighths (of a mile). She’s filled out and she really looks good right now. It’s just like with American Pharoah, sometimes they get hurt but it helps them in the long run.”
Also for Lukas, Calumet Farm’s Mr. Z will run in the $500,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown on June 20.
“He’s such a tough horse,” Lukas said. “People say he’s raced a lot but hell, he really wants to train and he’s dragging us around.”
Lukas likes the race for the son of Malibu Moon mainly because of the distance.
“This is a good spot for him, it’s a mile-and-a-sixteenth,” Lukas said. “I think he’s going be a real top miler by the fall. I want to try him on the grass. He can get a mile-and-sixteenth and a mile-and-an-eighth, but I think that a flat mile is his preferred distance.”