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Behind every great racehorse, there are great horsemen who have helped to bring out the excellence that lay within. As American Pharoah sailed through the stretch to victory in the Arkansas Derby, the big bay emphasized that trainer Bob Baffert has developed a pair of very high-class racers that also includes last weekend’s Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund.

But the steps that eventually led to the son of Pioneerof the Nile being a leading prospect for the Kentucky Derby began more than three years ago with his birth at a farm on Briar Hill Road outside Lexington, Ky.

American Pharoah’s story began at Stockplace, a farm owned and operated by Tom Van Meter DVM. Van Meter recalled that American Pharoah “was born on Groundhog’s Day (Feb. 2, 2012) and was a nice, big foal. You wouldn’t have picked him out as extraordinary, but he was a nice, plain bay, like most of the Pioneers. We foaled six to eight Pioneers that year for Mr. Zayat, who sent all his mares to his own stallions.

“We kept Mr. Z’s mares for a while, and American Pharoah was in the last crop that I raised for him. He left Stockplace in June or early July,” Van Meter said, then went to Vinery, where he was weaned, and to Taylor Made Farm, where he was prepared for the yearling sales and consigned to Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga select yearling sale in 2013.

At the Saratoga sale, American Pharoah was a well-grown and progressive-looking young horse. Consigned by Taylor Made Sales for Zayat, American Pharoah proved a popular horse, and as Taylor Made’s yearling manager John Hall remarked: “Everyone who touched that sucker loved him.”

It’s true. The brawny bay made a deep impression on all who saw him, but the crowd of buyers at Saratoga can sometimes be super-critical. In spite of American Pharoah’s scope and muscle, there was a blemish on a shin from a brush with fate in a paddock.

The x-rays “showed it was okay,” Hall said, “but everyone seemed afraid of it. That was their loss and Mr. Zayat’s gain.” American Pharoah went through the ring at Saratoga, where he was bought in at $300,000 to race for his breeder.

From upstate New York, the big bay shipped south to Florida, where he was broken and put into early training at the McKathan Brothers Farm near Ocala.

J.B. McKathan Jr. said that American Pharoah “was a big, classy-looking colt. He was long, tall, and powerful. We really liked him, but he didn’t look like a speedball. He looked like a classic colt.

“But the first time we asked him, he just ran off from the other horses. He showed speed right away and improved with every work. He had so much natural ability that we worked not to do too much with him. Never put a stick on him. Went through several bits trying to get him to slow down.

“He was just naturally a very, very fast horse.”

Those are the qualities that breeders and horsemen hope to find in animals that promise to become the very best racehorses.

And on top of the obvious ability that American Pharoah possessed, he wasn’t running away from a herd of nonentities. Among the other stock that the McKathans had in pre-training were Gotham Stakes winner El Kabeir and multiple G1-placed Mr. Z, which are both slated for the Zayat Stables entry in the Kentucky Derby.

J.B. McKathan said, “We’re really excited to have three good horses in the Derby. It’s very satisfying when a horse is able to perform at the level you expect, that you hope for.”

The McKathans have found a lot of satisfaction in their work with classic prospects, and among their earlier successes for Zayat Stables was Pioneerof the Nile, the sire of American Pharoah. Second in the Kentucky Derby, Pioneerof the Nile had preceded that effort with victories that included the G1 Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Futurity.

Due to their relationship with Zayat Stables, the McKathans have worked with a number of young horses by Pioneerof the Nile, and J.B. McKathan said, “we’ve had Pioneers in all shapes and sizes, but one thing they’ve had in common is the desire to win, which is so important.”

One of the factors that make top horses is the desire to win, and the sire’s first crop included colts with classic aspirations like Cairo Prince, Social Inclusion, and Vinceremos. A tendency toward classic form is also becoming a general trend with Pioneerof the Nile.

There are plenty more Derbys ahead through the spring and summer, but the one that matters most is next on the agenda for American Pharoah.

In recalling the Arkansas Derby winner as a yearling, John Hall said that American Pharoah “had a great mind. He was very intelligent, and when you introduced something new, it was like he’d done it before.”

I do wonder if the colt has ever posed with roses.

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