VERSAILLES, Ky. — The slatted door opens, and an unprepared jaw drops. Even for eyes that have seen a thousand thoroughbreds while unable to discern the extremely beautiful from the even more extremely beautiful, the sight of American Pharoah in the back corner of his stall at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday can look as stunning as the French Riviera.
Oddly, maybe even nuttily, he seems to realize he is in the process of being admired. If he doesn’t quite blink his eyes bashfully, he does resonate that effect. He manages to convey the feeling — possibly errant; we’ll never know — that he’s both aware he’s majestic and a trifle surprised at the fact he’s majestic.
He became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years in 2015, tacked on the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic at nearby Keeneland, posted a first-year stud fertility rate of 90 percent and, after starting his stud life in February 2016, should have somewhere around 150 foals prancing the Earth by the end of May. Maybe it’s hard to stand in a fine stone barn in the drop-dead Kentucky-pretty of Ashford Stud and fend off conceit.
He’s good at the fending, too.
“He’s probably the quietest stallion that I’ve been around in 40 years dealing with stallions,” said Richard Barry, the Ireland-bred stallion manager at Ashford, which the breeding giant Coolmore of County Tipperary, Ireland, has owned since 1984. “He’s a pure gentleman.”
“He is different, temperament-wise,” said Scott Calder, the New Zealand-bred sales and marketing manager for Coolmore. “He is quite amazing, really, just how laid-back he is and how good he is with people. You wish every horse was this easy, as he is. That was part of why he was able to do what he did. Obviously, he has talent, but especially the Triple Crown, you’ve got the crowds and the travel, and if you put too much energy out on the training track in the morning, that’s going to catch up with you, too. So you’d have to think that was part of what got him through it, I’m sure.”
“Oh my goodness,” said Anne Sabatino Hardy, whose three-year-old organization, Horse Country, books and conducts tours for 36 farms and other outlets. “In the few times I’ve gotten to meet him, he has a presence about him. He was such an incredible athlete. And I think that there’s something about him, deep down, where he senses his responsibility as an ambassador to the sport. He just understands, in a way that he relates to people and relates to all the things in his sport. He just seems to take to everything with such ease.”
For the 11 years between 1978 and 1989, three living Triple Crown winners dotted the land. For the 12 years after the death of Secretariat (1970-89), that number stayed at two, until Affirmed (1975-2001) and then Seattle Slew (1974-2002) passed, the latter 25 years to the day after that indomitable Kentucky Derby win in which he pretty much did everything but a forward roll. The Triple Crown drought lived partly on inches and breaks here and there and forever: Silver Charm just missing in the Belmont Stakes stretch in 1997, Real Quiet missing it by a nose in 1998, Smarty Jones spending several moments in the stretch looking unmistakably victorious before the big, mean no in 2004.
So here he is, the world’s lone living Triple Crown winner, and the only horse who ran all three legs of the thing in 2015. He’s down the long lane from the highway and the main entrance amid a settling filled with Kentucky-pretty (with Kentucky-pretty distinctive from any other pretty). He cohabitates with four horses in their five stalls in the sublimely tended Kentucky barn, this one formerly a corn granary when cattle farmers held the deed until 1978. To American Pharoah’s left is Lookin At Lucky, the 2010 Preakness champion. Across the way, left to right from American Pharoah’s view, are Munnings, Magician and then, in the corner, Giant’s Causeway, so prolific as the leading active sire in North America that there’s a statue of him outside.
“Of all the stalls that American Pharoah potentially could have had,” Calder said, “he wouldn’t have got that one because that’s where Giant’s Causeway has been for years and years. And there’s a reason we have a bronze statue of him.”
American Pharoah eats about 18 pounds of feed per day, Barry said. He eats early mornings and late afternoons. He has perpetual hay available. He has a noonish nap. He routinely makes the walk to a breeding shed larger than most such sheds, with two rooms as candidates for the Room Where It Happens. The humans close the doors because sometimes it’s bloody cold out and other times as a precaution in case of one of nature’s ruckuses.
North American breeding season lasts from February to early July (whereupon American Pharoah will head for a winter and spring in Australia). In these days, American Pharoah will make the walk and do the job either thrice, twice, once or not at all in a given day. He might have no mares ready one day, a line of them the next so that he makes the walk in morning, midday and evening. He enters through one door and they, through another.
“They know when they’re going to the breeding shed,” Calder said, “and you see a change in their demeanor.”
His fee, while listed as private, generally weeds out nutty offers, Calder said. American Pharoah began as do all the stallions, amid the slight, vague uncertainty of it all, with unusual cases bringing infertility or the mysterious travails of disinterest. He thrived — it seems to be what he does — with the first foal announced as arriving at 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 3, 2017, at Brookdale Farm, about five miles away. In his rarefied case, of course, the day includes one other duty.
The tour groups, limited to 25, come by at about 3 p.m. Those do not include the people who just drop by, ring the buzzer at the gate and ask to see the star, all such requests stemming from a lack of awareness of the overwhelming work entailed at a horse farm. That happens roughly once a week by now, receptionist Fallon Brannigan said, as with last week when a passer-by called from the gate.
“He asked if he could get tickets to the tour,” which was sold out, she said, “and then he said, ‘Well, I’m actually outside.’ He was like, ‘Can I just come into the office?’ And I said, ‘We only do one tour.’ And he was insisting and sitting out there.
“Which is great,” she said, pointing to the video monitors on a desktop, “because you can see him and everything.”
For the 25 who book ahead, though, the slatted gate opens, and the Triple Crown winner with the misspelled name emerges. Sometimes there are tears, and more times there are gasps, all for a subject who, somehow, doesn’t mind a whit.
“We are very conscious that he is such a kind horse,” Calder said. “Not all our stallions would tolerate this kind of attention. A lot of them, sometimes, like humans, they have bad days and they don’t want to really be dealt with and they would rather be in their stall and left alone. Most stallions will try to nip you if they get a chance. Yeah, you definitely couldn’t do that with an ordinary horse, but he just isn’t ordinary, I guess.”