Back in the 1970s when working as an exercise rider, I watched three Thoroughbreds win racing’s Triple Crown within a five-year span: Secretariat in 1973, with track records in all three races and a Belmont Stakes win by an astounding 31 lengths, followed in 1977 by Seattle Slew and by Affirmed the next year. Assuming another stellar runner would win that triad within the next few years, the Thoroughbred industry was riding high. Rumors emerged that the Triple Crown might be getting too easy. But an equine superstar would not emerge for another 37 years. Rumors again flew, this time that the Triple Crown was too difficult and should somehow be changed.
In 2015, however, American Pharoah pranced onto the scene and decidedly captured all three races, leading wire-to-wire in the Preakness and Belmont. Horse racing finally had a hero.
Owners Ahmed and son Justin Zayat agreed that the crowd’s roar was so loud when their horse crossed the finish line that you couldn’t hear the person next to you and that they’d never before heard the Belmont racegoers so vocal. Even folks who bet against the champ joined in the joyful noise, ecstatic that he hadn’t suffered the same fate as had 11 horses prior, including California Chrome in 2014, who’d won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but faltered in the Belmont.
“People were thirsty for a Triple Crown winner,” says Patrick Armstrong, president of the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. “His accomplishment has brought a renewed interest in racing.”
If you haven’t already met the equine superstar, a great way to do that is on the “American Pharoah: A Champions Tour,” an experience created through a partnership between the museum, Louisville-based Mint Julep Tours, and Lexington-based Horse Country Inc., a booking agent that connects its member farms and clinics with tour companies and individual visitors looking for equine experiences. This all-inclusive tour travels to the Derby Museum to view the new American Pharoah exhibit and includes a walking tour of the track’s highlights and lunch at its café. Then in a van with a knowledgeable guide, you visit Coolmore America’s 5,000-acre, gorgeously manicured Ashford Stud farm in Versailles, where the Triple Crown winner stands for $200,000 per breeding and greets his human public, usually five days a week, with the grace of a seasoned diplomat.
“The tour is a full day of everything horseracing,” says David Nichols, Mint Julep Tours’ head of marketing.
The museum’s homage to Pharoah opened in May to a record crowd of 1,200 (four-to-five times the usual attendance), who heard Ahmed Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza chat about all things American Pharoah.
“The champ’s connections have been so generous in sharing the horse with the public,” said Armstrong. “His trainer is world renown, his jockey is popular, and the horse is a fantastic athlete. All those factors have led to a phenomenon we’ve dubbed ‘The American Pharoah Effect’.”
Essentially, that effect has caused museum attendance to reach record levels since May. And American Pharoah merchandise – hats, t-shirts, shot glasses, jockey silks, Breyer horse models, et al – continues to fly out of its store, all boosting the bottom line. Overall museum revenue is up 42 percent, and sales of the Triple Crown winner’s merchandise compared with that of 2014 Derby champ California Chrome – the winningest racehorse of all time – are up 744 percent.
Also contributing to the effect, says Armstrong, has been a makeover of the museum’s stunning in-the-round movie, “The Greatest Race,” now produced in 4K video. The world’s only such presentation, the film plays seven days a week, 362 days a year at 10 minutes past every hour the museum is open.
An yet, people still can’t get enough of the Triple Crown champ.
Beautifully curated, the American Pharoah exhibit features interactive touch screens of his owner, trainer and jockey talking about the big horse and their own histories and impressions. Among other things, Baffert discusses the runner’s laid-back personality, one not generally found in high-strung Thoroughbreds. Video clips chronicle all of his wins, while media print clips from newspapers in 49 states report his specific Triple Crown races.
A highlight is the glittering display of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Triple Crown trophies, the first time all have been exhibited in the same location. Among the memorabilia displayed are the horse’s racing tack and silks, and Bob Baffert’s high school diploma and a pay stub he received during a brief stint as a jockey. In case you missed it, there’s even a film clip of Victor Espinoza’s appearance on “Dancing with the Stars.” Something for everyone.
As a bonus for the museum, Maker’s Mark created a limited-edition commemorative American Pharoah bourbon bottle and together with the Zayat family, donated $100,000 of its sales to the Derby Museum.
The American Pharoah exhibit runs through December at the Kentucky Derby Museum. Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud releases blocks of dates to visit the champ at the farm every few months. Dates sell out fast, but you can sign up for email notifications at the Horse Country Inc. website, visithorsecountry.com. ν
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].