As a rule, every racehorse in America had a birthday last Friday, New Year’s Day. The best in the land, American Pharoah, turned four, but his racing career is finished. It was short and spectacular, over in fewer than 15 months. We got to see him in 11 races. He lost twice. In 2015, the bay colt earned $8,288,800, a single-season record as he became the first horse to win the Triple Crown since 1978. Ahmed Zayat, his Egyptian-American Orthodox-Jewish owner, finished the year as the leading owner ranked by earnings. And he’s about to become richer during Pharoah’s second career—as a stud.
American Pharoah’s remarkable run—in particular those seven triumphant months between his Kentucky Derby victory and runaway romp in the Breeders’ Cup Classic—set him up for a longer calling beyond the track. In a few weeks, American Pharoah’s stallion duties will begin where he was born and raised, in the Kentucky bluegrass between Churchill Downs, the Derby home, and Keeneland Racecourse, where he won the $5 million Classic.
Zayat bred American Pharoah—he raced his sire, Pioneerof the Nile, and his dam, Littleprincessemma—and sold American Pharoah’s stallion rights to the Ireland-based Coolmore Stud in January 2015 for a base valuation of $8 million, according to reports, right before the colt had been named two-year-old champion but well before the Triple Crown. Coolmore, the partnership of John Magnier and Englishmen Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor (the latter two started their careers in legal bookmaking), also owns farms in Australia and Kentucky.
In their timing, the Coolmore team struck gold with American Pharoah; his value is now estimated around $50 million. They set the fee to breed him at $200,000 per foal. But expecting American Pharoah’s offspring to become like their father is not so simple, and bank accounts will rise or fall on getting that right.
“What they do on the racetrack doesn’t necessarily translate to what they do at stud,” said Bill Oppenheim, a foremost breeding analyst and consultant to well-heeled stables. “It’s a whole different ballgame. Athletic performance is different than being a breeding animal.”
As only the 12th Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah offers few points of comparison. The previous three of the modern era— Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978)—had mixed results. Only Seattle Slew, Oppenheim said, became an unqualified success as a stud. Several of his sons, such as A.P. Indy, became outstanding racehorses and later stallions. Secretariat and Affirmed became more notable as broodmare sires, meaning their daughters had sons better than their own. Only Seattle Slew enjoyed male-line heirs, as they say in the business.
Success as a stallion is a “huge amalgamation of moving parts,” said Sid Fernando, who, like Oppenheim, is hired by owners and breeders to offer his matchmaking advice. There are the obvious indicators—race record, pedigree, physical stature—and less-obvious ones, too, such as the quality of the handlers of that stallion’s progeny.
The two most-expensive American stallions today, Tapit and War Front, came nowhere close to American Pharoah as racehorses. They once stood for $15,000 before their offspring began illuminating the track and their fees ballooned to $300,000. Including American Pharoah, 11 horses will stand in the U.S. for $100,000 or more. There is a knock-off effect, too, for his bloodlines: His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, saw his fee more than double, from $60,000 to $125,000, and Empire Maker, his grandsire, costs $100,000.
The bar is high. According to Oppenheim, only three stallions have ever gone to stud for $200,000, and none have been all that successful. The last, Ghostzapper, in 2006, saw his fee drop all the way to $20,000 before it stabilized and climbed back to $60,000. As such, Coolmore faced some sticker-shock from its regular clients. Said Oppenheim: “What people forget is that there is a very limited number of people that can pay that kind of money without thinking about it.”
This year, American Pharoah will see about 150 mares—the best of the best, either on the track or as producers, or both. (Female lines are just as important.) Oppenheim expects Coolmore to support American Pharoah with their best mares, most of them with Irish and English pedigrees. Some of the offspring will join their Irish stable. According to an ESPN.com report, Zayat will retain a quarter-interest in American Pharoah’s breeding rights.
But this side of the game is the ultimate form of delayed gratification. American Pharoah’s first yearlings will not make it to the sales ring until 2018 while his first runners won’t make it to the track until 2019. Stallions are given a small window to prove themselves and thus continue to attract elite mares. For breeders, memories of American Pharoah on the racetrack will quickly recede if his offspring don’t catch the eye.
Matchmaker Sid Fernando believes that the Triple Crown winner will “bring a new dimension to the American breeding landscape that hasn’t been seen in quite a while.” American Pharoah could do it all: like those champions of the 70’s, he had speed and stamina and durability. Fernando thinks he could become a “breed-shaping stallion,” a championship thoroughbred whose offspring become so sought-after that his genes become ever-present in later generations. Deep pockets are betting on it.