NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. — If you were playing a round at High Point Golf Club in the spring of 2013 and were unfortunate enough to snap a hook off the No. 4 tee, you might have endangered a future equine legend.
Just across Union Mill Road from the fourth fairway is a verdant 40-acre field framed by black split-rail fencing. That's where American Pharoah frolicked as a yearling at Taylor Made Farm, well before the world knew he was going to be something special.
"I'd love to tell you that one day we saw a bald eagle sitting on his shoulder, and we knew," said Mark Taylor, vice president of marketing and public sales operations at the farm. "But that wasn't the case. The longer we had him, the better he looked. But there wasn't anything that said he was going to win the Triple Crown."
American Pharoah will try to do that Saturday at Belmont Park, bidding to become just the 12th horse in history to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Today, he is racing royalty. Back then, he was just one of the boys.
American Pharoah shared that field with eight other baby colts Taylor Made was preparing for the August Fasig-Tipton Select Yearling Sale in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. After being vanned from central Kentucky to upstate New York, he went into the Fasig-Tipton sales ring as Hip No. 85.
Nobody fell in love.
He was "a plain brown wrapper," in the words of Taylor Made buyer account manager Jacob West – no flashy white markings on his face or his feet. There wasn't much flash in his pedigree to that point, either. American Pharoah was part of the second foal crop of Pioneerof The Nile, a talented racehorse who had finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, but in 2013 an unproven sire.
American Pharoah was in the sales ring for all of five anticlimactic minutes. Horsemen from around the globe appraised the animal and refused to raise the bidding to the listed minimum sale price of $300,000 – a figure that would be reached or surpassed for 32 of the 151 other yearlings up for sale in the two-day event.
Owner Ahmed Zayat since has said he would not have parted with the horse for less than $1 million at the Fasig-Tipton sale, believing that his homebred horse would help validate Pioneerof The Nile as a star sire. So he instructed his bloodstock agent, David Ingordo, to put in the lone "live money" bid of $300,000 to buy him back, then turned down some private overtures for the horse.
And that's how the rest of the world missed out on owning American Pharoah.
Three yearling colts consigned by Taylor Made at that sale fetched half a million or more, none with much to show for it. Only one of them, a son of War Front named Royal Navy Ship who raced in Ireland at age 2, was nominated to the 2015 Triple Crown. The colt that would go on to become the star of his generation on the racetrack came and went quietly in Saratoga.
This is how it works in horse racing. Which is to say, rarely by plan.
Horse racing lore is full of cheap horses who became stars: Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was a $17,500 purchase in 1975; two decades later, near-Triple Crown winner Real Quiet went for $500 less than that. It also is full of high-priced busts: the most infamous purchase may be The Green Monkey, who fetched a staggering $16 million as a 2-year-old in 2006 and never won a race in a short and ignominious career.
American Pharoah was somewhere in between – he never was going to be a sales topper, but he certainly has outrun what anyone expected of him as a yearling. Last month, Zayat sold the colt's breeding rights to Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Verstailles, Ky., for an undisclosed price that undoubtedly runs into the tens of millions – and would increase with a victory Saturday. That has to send a spasm of regret through those who appraised him two years ago and failed to make a bid.
"He was right there," Taylor said, "and all the best eyes in the world saw him."
American Pharoah was something of an equine gypsy as a baby. He moved around a lot.
He was born at 11 p.m. on Groundhog Day, 2012, at Stockplace Farm near Winchester, Ky. A few months later, the foal and his mother, Littleprincessemma, were moved to a Lexington farm then called Vinery, where he was weaned. When Vinery owner Tom Simon sold his farm, American Pharoah made his move to the sprawling, bucolic Shangri-La known as Taylor Made.
Joe Taylor raised eight children in central Kentucky, and horses were part of their daily existence. As the manager at Gainesway Farm, his kids grew up well versed in every aspect of farm life – well versed enough to strike out on their own. In 1976 his sons started Taylor Made Sales Agency, and today four brothers – Duncan, Ben, Frank and Mark, plus childhood friend Pat Payne – form the management team of one of the world's foremost thoroughbred operations.
They've seen a lot of great horses come and go from their farm. But until American Pharoah, they'd never boarded a future Kentucky Derby winner.
West, the buyer account manager, was there when the plain brown wrapper arrived in January 2013, and saw him just about every day thereafter. Per Taylor Made's detail-oriented approach, he kept notes on everything.
There was a temporary concern when the yearling was flipping one of his front feet out slightly sideways when he walked, but that went away quickly. Mostly he was impressed by Pharoah's athleticism – some horses look better standing still (like statuesque fellow Bob Baffert trainee Dortmund, who was third in the Kentucky Derby), and some look better on the move.
American Pharoah's allure was in his kinetics. The length of his stride caught the Taylor Made staff's eye. So did the way he "unhinged at the shoulder" when walking, according to West.
"Some horses shuffle," Taylor said. "He would walk like a cat – like a panther. He had a swagger."
Taylor Made is basically racehorse Harvard. At any given time there are about 100 yearlings, 200 mares and 150 foals on the property that is spread across 1,200 acres of rolling bluegrass countryside about 15 miles south of Lexington. All of them are well bred. None of them are cheap.
Amid that company, American Pharoah's movements were eye-catching.
"He was always really athletic," West said. "When LeBron James walks in the room, you can tell he can play basketball. This horse, you could always tell he was going to be a runner. Every time you looked at him, he looked like a race horse."
One of the notes West took on American Pharoah: "Poetry in motion."
The colt's first four months at Taylor Made were mostly spent being a rough-and-tumble boy. Mark Taylor said the farm's philosophy is to keep its yearlings outdoors 22 hours a day – playing, fighting and racing with each other in open pasture.
"You can't raise a good horse inside," Taylor said. "We want them to develop as organically as possible, let them be as rough as possible. You can't develop a racehorse wrapping him in cotton in some protected stall.
"We try to provide good water, good pasture, good horsemanship. Then don't screw them up."
Part of that organic development process is letting the colts establish their own hierarchy in the field. When they're fed lunch outdoors – each horse gets a "flake" of hay, basically a slice of a bale, plus oats – some will try to boss others out of their meal. If there are eight colts in one field, they eventually develop their own 1-through-8 pecking order.
The only time the Taylor Made yearlings are indoors are at breakfast. After the morning feeding farm hands and blacksmiths check and maintain their hooves, and give them a look-over to inspect for any injuries suffered overnight in the field.
The babies get individual attention, but don't yet come with formal names attached – the sliding doors of their stalls list their mother, father, date of birth, account manager and owner. The names come later, after being sold.
As the big summer sales approach, the routine changes. It's time to take the shaggy, unkempt kids and clean them up. Sales events are every bit as much about cosmetics as a Paris runway show, so the looks of the yearlings become paramount.
They spend most of the daylight hours indoors to avoid bleaching their coats. Skin rashes are scrupulously guarded against. Rough-housing in the field is off-limits, because bite marks and chewed up manes and tails will drive down the sales price.
"It would be like Miss American showing up for a pageant with a zit on her nose," West said.
(Speaking of tails: American Pharoah's is famously short, allegedly because it was chewed off by another horse. West insists it happened after the horse's time at Taylor Made. "We're big on tails," he said. "And that horse left here with a full tail.")
A more sedentary lifestyle can create a flabby horse, and you can't have that at the elite sales. The yearlings are either hand-jogged in a pen a couple days a week, or put in a European-style mechanized exerciser in order to keep them toned.
Bloodlines are absolutely paramount when it comes to selling horses – but beauty matters, too. The goal is to send an animal into the sales ring that makes buyers fall in love.
"There's something about the sizzle," Taylor said. "When the steak comes out sizzling on a plate, who knows if it tastes better? But when all the senses come together, it seems better. When that horse looks at [buyers], you want them to feel something."
When the tractor-trailer loaded with yearlings left Taylor Made for that Saratoga sale two years ago, nobody was sure whether Hip No. 85 would bring any sizzle to the sales ring. But expectations were not high.
Moving like a panther is one thing. Bloodlines are another. With Pioneerof The Nile still unproven as a sire, putting his son in with the most regally bred horses in North America was like moving a pitcher from AA ball to the big leagues. He was one of only four from Pioneerof The Nile's second foal crop to make it to a select sale.
"We knew he was a nice horse, but we took a chance taking him up there," Taylor said. "That's a pretty elite audience."
In front of buyers for Arab sheikhs, Irish billionaires and American titans of industry, American Pharoah went into the sales ring. He failed to win over that elite audience. After five minutes, it was over – he was still in the possession of Ahmed Zayat, an entrepreneur who immigrated from Egypt and made his fortune by selling a beverage company to Heineken for $280 million.
"We're always disappointed when they don't sell, because that's how we get paid," Taylor said. "But we know Mr. Zayat is a race-first guy, and he wanted to keep him. We weren't surprised."
Taylor Made's job with American Pharoah was done. Shortly thereafter, the colt and several others owned by Zayat went to the Ocala, Fla., farm of J.B. and Kevin McKathan to learn how to become a racehorse.
This is where American Pharoah's true brilliance began to be revealed. When the McKathans put him on their training track for short runs, the stopwatch said what the sales ring did not: the horse was indeed something special.
The word the brothers McKathan relayed back to the brothers Taylor: "Forget the rest of them. This Pioneerof The Nile colt is head and shoulders better than everything we have."
He has validated that assessment – and avenged his Fasig-Tipton sales rebuff – every gliding stride since then. Taylor Made Farm may not have made money on him, but the folks there will be rooting for American Pharoah Saturday like almost everyone else.
"I hope like hell he wins the Triple Crown," West said. "Just to say you had your hands on a Triple Crown winner would be amazing."