William Shakespeare once wrote “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The American Pharoah Stakes (G1) has gone by three different names since its inauguration in 1970, but no one has even mistaken the race for anything less than a major steppingstone on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Held over 1 1⁄16 miles, the American Pharoah Stakes is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), North America’s year-end championship for two-year-old colts and gelding. The race also splits 17 Kentucky Derby qualification points among the top four finishers on a 10-4-2-1 basis, making the American Pharoah a coveted target for the best juveniles in California.
As a result, the American Pharoah has produced a steady string of Kentucky Derby starters. Known from 1970 through 2011 as the Norfolk Stakes, and from 2012 through 2017 as the FrontRunner Stakes, the race was renamed again in 2018 to honor its most legendary winner, American Pharoah. Long before his heralded sweep of the 2015 Triple Crown, American Pharoah was an easy 3 ¼-length winner 2014 FrontRunner.
The same year American Pharoah made history in the Triple Crown, champion two-year-old Nyquist won the FrontRunner as part of an undefeated juvenile season. With his subsequent victory in the 2016 Kentucky Derby, Nyquist became the third horse to use Santa Anita’s signature juvenile test as a springboard to success under the Twin Spires. Gato Del Sol, third in the 1981 Norfolk but victorious in the 1982 Kentucky Derby, was the first to establish the precedent.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has been largely responsible for boosting the profile of the American Pharoah Stakes. In addition to conditioning the race’s legendary namesake, Baffert saddled eight other American Pharoah winners between 1997 and 2019, including two-time champion Lookin at Lucky (2009) and champion juvenile Game Winner (2018).
Aside from the Baffert brigade, Best Pal (runner-up in the 1991 Kentucky Derby) and Free House (second in the 1997 Derby) rank among the most notable juveniles to triumph in the American Pharoah. Yet despite this impressive roster of winners, the standard for individual brilliance in the American Pharoah is held by the star-crossed Ruler’s Court, who recorded the stakes-record time of 1:41.27 while dominating by 14 lengths in 2003.
By J. Keeler Johnson
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