Presumptive Kentucky Derby favorite American Pharoah has garnered rave reviews for his performances on the racetrack. But that's nothing new for the champ. In fact, Zayat Stables' homebred had star quality from birth.
"From day one, when he was born," owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat recalled, "he was gorgeous. The way he was muscled, the way he's built, his gaskins, his hind end -- you can tell that he's built different.
"Looking at a total athlete from day one."
American Pharoah wasn't just a physical specimen: he also has an unusually sweet disposition for a horse of his talent.
"Horses who have possessed a lot of talent and a lot of speed tend to be a little bit more tough and arrogant," Zayat said.
"Usually horses who are incredibly fast, who are incredibly ahead of their class, so to speak, on the farm, they tend to walk with some sort of an aura almost, kind of say, 'I'm the man.'
"But what was amazing was he's the most kind horse you can own -- he's almost like a pet. You can do anything with him - you can pet him, you can kiss him. He is so easy.
"He's the kindest, sweetest, cuddly horse you would want -- you literally want to cuddle with him," Zayat enthused.
American Pharoah was foaled and spent his earliest days at Tom Van Meter's farm near Lexington, Kentucky, where he routinely caught the eye of bloodstock agents.
"Sometimes some agents would come by and look at horses, and that was the one they all liked," Van Meter said. "That was the one they all wanted to buy."
After some time at Vinery, where he created quite an impression, American Pharoah transferred to Taylor Made Farm and continued to develop as a top-notch prospect as a yearling.
"He was a standout," said John Hall, Taylor Made's yearling manager.
Hall described Pharoah as "always just a super-intelligent horse" with a "great mind, great attitude" and "always very athletic."
Even as a yearling just running in his paddock, Pharoah evinced that lovely, flowing stride.
"He always had terrific action in the field," Hall noted.
"He made you say, 'pay attention to me' -- he was that caliber of horse."
Taylor Made consigned American Pharoah to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale on Zayat's behalf, but Zayat ended up buying him back for $300,000.
Ironically, Zayat had done the same with American Pharoah's sire, Pioneerof the Nile. Also a homebred, Pioneerof the Nile was offered at the 2007 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, and Zayat likewise bought him back for $290,000.
Pioneerof the Nile went on to win such major races as the CashCall Futurity, Robert B. Lewis, San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Lining up as a key contender in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, he appeared to be on cruise control turning for home, only to be shocked by the 50-1 Mine That Bird. Pioneerof the Nile settled for second.
Zayat commented on the father-and-son connection.
"How incredible that is! His daddy ran second for us in the Kentucky Derby, and how lucky if his son comes and avenges his loss -- it's a great story. There's so many angles to this, it's unreal."
Pioneerof the Nile was the first of three Zayat horses to take the runner-up spot in the Kentucky Derby, with Nehro (2011) and Bodemeister (2012) following his precedent.
While Pharoah is his leading hope this year, Zayat has two other runners in Derby 141 – Mr. Z and El Kabeir, both yearling purchases.
Mr. Z is a prime suspect in the mysterious case of American Pharoah's unusually short tail. The two were in the field together as youngsters.
"We believe that his tail was being bitten off by others," Zayat said, adding that he was "told it was bit off by Mr. Z in the field."
Zayat cites that as further evidence of Pharoah's gentle nature. He allowed his tail to be chewed off rather than retaliating.
Mr. Z is "completely the opposite" of Pharoah, a "completely different kind of horse."
While Pharoah makes it all look easy, Mr. Z "always runs so hard."
Mr. Z is "tenacious," Zayat said of the most experienced horse in the Derby field by far, with 12 starts already under his belt.
"He has unbelievable determination and heart. He's a fighter, he wants to look you in the eye and fight you."
El Kabeir has "made a 180-degree transformation from two to three," Zayat observed.
Formerly a "very tough, very on the bit" type who "wants the lead," El Kabeir is now "so versatile – he could be on the lead, he could be on the pace, could be coming from dead last as a closer."
Although Zayat appears to hold a strong hand with American Pharoah, he's been down this road before. He had the raging favorite in 2010, Eskendereya, who unfortunately sustained a career-ending injury early on Derby week.
Zayat doesn't dwell on what might have been.
"I'm so blessed. I mean, I'm blessed.
"I know the highs and the lows of this game, and I'm trying to contain myself, and be less nervous, and try to stay humble, but it's crazy.
"It's an amazing feeling."