Specter of American Pharoah dominates Kentucky Derby week

May 6, 2016, 10:35 AM

— -- LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He is everywhere.

His name is emblazoned on the jacket Bob Baffert is wearing, and printed in gold letters on the side of Baffert's barn. It is his picture that is presented to Baffert for an autograph, and his win that is commemorated on a keepsake wooden bourbon barrel top also given over for Baffert's signature.

He is the reason that Barn Number 33, Baffert's barn, is the only one on the entire backside that has attracted a daily crowd, and he is certainly part of the draw for fans who have found their way to watch the Kentucky Derby entrants work on a cool and cloudy Wednesday morning.

He is everywhere, but American Pharoah is not here, not at Churchill Downs.

As horse racing gears up for its moment in the spotlight with Saturday's Kentucky Derby, the sport's biggest star is a 60-mile ride and a lifetime away. While this year's Derby contenders take up residence in the less-than-glamorous backside barns, where washing machines stand outside the stalls and rubber mats are plopped out for a horse's daily bath, American Pharoah lives in a gleaming stallion barn made out of rock hewn from a special quarry and richly stained oak.

The reigning Triple Crown winner fittingly lives like a king, but thanks to the nature of the sport and the allure of lucrative breeding rights, he has abandoned his kingdom.

It took 37 years for horse racing to find a new hero. After a little more than 18 minutes of career racing, he is gone, leaving a sport caught somewhere between anticipation for what's next and the hangover of what was.

"We're still on the Pharoah tour a little bit,'' Baffert said. "But it ends Saturday.''

The question is, what takes its place?

The rewards of a phenomenon -- and the costs

On Tuesday morning, Baffert rode down the long driveway that bisects the 2,000 acres of Coolmore Farms to pay a visit to American Pharoah.

Some 3,000 fans have done the same since November 30, when the farm started offering tours to 'meet' the Triple Crown winner. They have come from as far away as Sweden and Japan, representing 45 different states, according to Horse Country, the group that books the public tours. Even more will come this month -- the tours are sold out through May 31.

Baffert spent an hour there, taking American Pharoah out of the stall for a walk, the whole time swallowing hard against the lump growing in his throat.

He misses the horse. He always marveled at the horse's kind and gentle spirit, rare for high-strung thoroughbreds, but Baffert also knows his experience of last year is even more rare. Baffert still gets goosebumps when he recalls what he called 'the deafening sound' as the Belmont Stakes crowd thundered in glee as American Pharoah crossed the wire, the noise not dying out as the horse continued to stride along.

"I was part of something really big in sports history,'' he said.

The moment turned countless everyday fans -- even Baffert's older children who were there to witness the moment -- into nouveau horse fans. From television ratings to attendance figures to amounts of money bet, every quantifiable number bears witness to the impact of American Pharoah on horse racing.

Some 22 million people watched the Belmont Stakes, the race ranking as the most-viewed Saturday afternoon sporting event since a January playoff game between the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots in 2015. The New York Racing Association capped the Belmont Stakes crowd at 90,000, fearing an otherwise catastrophic egress that the trains and roads couldn't handle, and nearly $135 million was bet that day, the second-highest handle in NYRA history.

From that Triple Crown moment, Pharoah's popularity and posse only grew. Close to 30,000 people clogged Churchill Downs on a June night to watch him parade about, and at his next race, the Haskell Invitational, a record crowd of 61,000 filled the tiny track near the Jersey shore.

In Saratoga, New York, 15,000 people showed up just to watch Pharoah work out. Attendance for the 28-day meet grew 14.3 percent from the previous year.

Even American Pharoah's loss at the Travers Stakes didn't dim his stardom. In his career finale, at the Breeder's Cup in Keeneland, a record 50,100 people came through the turnstiles and the race earned its largest TV audience since 1995.

"The sport needed a Triple Crown,'' said Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah's jockey. "I met a lot of incredible people, a lot of new people. They don't know much about the sport, and that's interesting. It's a good sign. It's a good thing. They want to know about horse racing, and that's always a good thing.''

Indeed, the aftermath of American Pharoah appeared to spill over even beyond his retirement. Attendance at the Santa Anita Derby this year was up eight percent, and at Gulfstream in Florida, general manager P.J. Campo set what he thought was an ambitious goal of a $30 million handle for the Florida Derby.

The final tally: $32.082 million, a 15 percent increase from the year before.

"American Pharoah had such a 'wow' factor and most people want to see that kind of performance again,'' Campo said. "Those within the industry know how hard that is to do, but people want to see what 2016 will be all about. That's why the Derby is so big this year.''

And therein lies the challenge.

Contenders to the throne

Imagine if Steph Curry finished off last year's run to the NBA championship, then simply vanished, retiring at the peak of his career, leaving Steve Kerr behind in his wake.

Kerr is interesting in his own right, sharp and successful.

He's not Curry.

"Being called a Triple Crown trainer, it sounds good,'' Baffert said. "But it's the horse that wins the Triple Crown.''

Except the horse has gone off to stud, and we are left with the people and 20 more three-year-olds to load into the gate Saturday.

The people are interesting and enjoying the fruits of American Pharoah's labor. Espinoza earned a spot on Dancing with the Stars and an appearance on Jimmy Fallon. This week, Baffert found a Louisville seamstress suddenly a lot more willing to perform a rush job on the Derby dress for his wife, Jill, when the seamstress recognized the white-haired trainer as American Pharoah's guy.

As for the 20 horses?

Most horse racing people aren't terribly enamored with this year's Derby field. The 20 horses are slower than last year's crop. Overhearing someone say there was 'No American Pharoah' in this field, one veteran writer quipped, 'Yeah, and no Mine that Bird, either,' referring to the 50-to-1 2009 Derby winner.

Frankly, the casual fan doesn't much care for Beyer's figures or statistics. The horse that wins the Derby could run slower than a mule and, so long as he also prolongs the drama with an appearance at the Preakness, he would give people a reason to watch.

And hope.

"We're all dreamers,'' Baffert said simply.

But it would help if the right horse took the roses, one with at least a decent shot of prolonged success.

Who is the right horse? Most folks point to Nyquist. Named after Red Wings player Gustav Nyquist (owner Paul Reddam is a big fan), the horse is undefeated in seven starts, including last year's Breeder's Cup Juvenile. He will likely go off as the favorite on Saturday, and trainer Doug O'Neill already has a Derby win, with I'll Have Another in 2012.

O'Neill stands in the crossfire of a new kind of horse-racing pressure, or at least new in the past four decades. He has the horse that has to follow the horse, one with big horseshoes to fill and even bigger expectations to meet.

Even in his hometown of Santa Monica, where horse racing isn't exactly on the tips of most people's tongues, O'Neill runs into people wishing him luck and telling him they've put down Vegas bets on his horse.

"American Pharoah took our sport from the back page of the sports page, sometimes not even covered, to the front page,'' O'Neill said. "The average person that glances through the sports section and listens to talk radio has heard a lot more about horse racing in the last year, year and a half, and that's a credit to American Pharoah. Hopefully Nyquist can carry the torch farther.''

Until then, American Pharoah will be everywhere.

Even if he's not here.