Joe Drape is an award-winning sportswriter for the New York Times whose seventh book, “American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise,” will be released on April 26. Drape also is the author of “Black Maestro: The Epic Life of an American Legend,” a biography about African-American jockey Jimmy Winkfield that won the 2006 Castleton Lyons-Thoroughbred Times Book Award. Drape took some time to chat with Dave Hill about American Pharoah, his new book and the relationships he’s developed in horse racing.
So many of my favorite Triple Crown hopefuls in the past, horses like California Chrome or Funny Cide, had these wonderful rags-to-riches, underdog stories. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get behind American Pharoah as our first Triple Crown winner because he didn’t have any of that mythology to his story. But as the campaign went on — and as I relive it in your book — I realized that the story here was incredible in its own right. How do you think American Pharoah stacks up against other horses you’ve covered in your career on that score?
At first glance, this wasn’t a very sexy story. It was [Bob] Baffert who has been around for 20 years. I’ve been around for 20 years. [Ahmed] Zayat who is flamboyant and controversial and stepped in some jams throughout. Victor [Espinoza] is a West Coast rider, a really excellent rider, but nobody knows a lot about him, and he was sort of the warmest figure at first glance that you had in all of these. And California Chrome had Hollywood movie-type elements to it — blue-collar horse, first-time [Kentucky Derby] trainer, first-time owners, that, you probably couldn’t have scripted that any better. But yeah, I was stumped. And I’ve rooted for “the story” before, too.
What’s interesting is I didn’t think I was going to write this book until after American Pharoah won the Belmont [Stakes]. Over the years, I’ve just wanted to write the Triple Crown story for the [New York] Times, but every year a horse comes close and people get excited and publishers get excited and say “would you be interested in writing a book?” This time around, I think because of the fact that it hadn’t happened after seven or eight previous times, nobody really called beforehand and said, “would you be interested in doing this?”
You mean because publishers just figured it wasn’t going to happen again?
Yeah, that it wasn’t going to happen again or it wasn’t in the forefront of their minds. California Chrome, everybody called because those story elements we were talking about before just jumped off the page … everybody knew that story. But with American Pharoah these were all familiar figures. When it was all said and done, I was really moved by the horse. I guess I learned a lesson. I’ve always rooted for the story, but the longer I’ve done this I’ve learned you’ve got to root for the horse. When I sat down to write this, I was very clear that I wanted this to be a biography of a horse, as silly as that sounds. All the people around the horse are great and are part of the story, but what turned that place [Belmont Park] into bedlam in June last year was the horse and what he had done. And if you look at all the books, the horse books that really worked — “Seabiscuit,” that’s about Seabiscuit. It had great detail and great human characters, but it was really about that horse and what he did. Same with Secretariat, how Secretariat empowered this young, single woman in the horse industry at a time when it was ruled by old guys. So, I wanted to do it that way.
And then we all get a little jaded, too. I forgot how interesting Bob Baffert was. When you go back and look at his body of work, where he came from and the steps he has made along the way, he is an interesting character. Especially in this late in life turn where he has a kid, he has a heart attack that was something of a “come to Jesus” moment, his parents die … he had some bad luck. He was basically in a Derby slump, a Triple Crown slump and he had these incidents — the seven dead horses in California, the Tweebster deal. He had kind of lost some of his popularity and there were a lot of questions surrounding him, and you did see during the Triple Crown, and I had written a story about how you could see in a change in the guy. The guy was an older, wiser, more mellow kind of guy and that was very unusual. And he said, “I would have screwed this horse up if I would have gotten it 20 years ago. I got the right horse at the right time.” So, he became a surprisingly good character.
Victor is a good character. Mr. Zayat is such a good character just because he is so left, right, and center. You never know what you are going to get with him, every time. The thing that I found interesting, one of the most fascinating aspects of the industry is the breeding and what goes on at horse farms, especially in Kentucky. And it was just great to find Frances Relihan and Tom VanMeter. There are 300,000 people that no one sees who treat these horses like they are Triple Crown winners before they can even put a saddle on their back. And, you know, they just became good characters for it.
How do you find these characters? What’s the process for writing a book like this after the fact?
I had a solid foundation. I’ve done this for 20 years. I know all these people. I’ve written reams of stories. I’ve written about every aspect of the industry, good and bad, so that was my foundation. You know when you are covering a Triple Crown like you and I were, you ferret out the stories that you think resonate at the time. You are reading everything, and it’s a small core of turf writers but a very good one, and I would keep my eye on the Blood-Horse, the [Daily Racing] Form, Sports Illustrated … Baltimore, Louisville, Lexington. I’ve got a big bibliography back there, in the back of the book. And sometimes, you just stumble through.
So the real work was coming up with a dramatic arc in the tension and conflict, and the beginning, middle and end. And that was the fun reporting. When you find out that Frances Relihan saw him in a field on her jog one day, running and playing, and thought, “wow, I’ve never seen one like this.” Tom VanMeter being able to go down Groundhog’s Day at 11:20 p.m. and have him deliver this baby, just shoot out as he said “slick as a seal.” Those are good things.
And then you learn about the breeze show or the sale at Saratoga, where Zayat wants to sell him because he’s trying to wrap up his bankruptcy, and his advisers are saying, “we usually buy horses like this. This is your get-out horse. Don’t sell him.” And then the luck of him banging his foot or his ankle, they think it had happened in a van or on the way up to Saratoga, so it had a big-old, ugly bruise that scared everybody off. And nobody would put up the money they thought he was worth, so they have to take him back. It was those little moves that moved the story along and give the conflict and the tension.
I think people didn’t realize how bad his pre-Breeders’ Cup injury was that they were worried not just if he would get back to the Triple Crown but if he’d get back to the track at all … and how that helped Coolmore get him at a bargain. So, it explains a lot of things. It’s the same thing when you talk to Victor and you look at the Arkansas Derby, where he’s rating him and everybody thought he was out of his mind or something was wrong with the horse. But Victor said he decided to do it because he knew in Kentucky he was going to have to relax that horse at some point. So, it’s a lot of fun reporting where you get these little moments, these little decisions and these little zigs and zags that all add up to basically eight months of perfection.
You seemed to have a lot of access to the people around American Pharoah, and these are all people you’ve written about in the past, sometimes even critically. Does that make it easier or harder to get access to them when working on a book like this?
I had a lot of access, and I think that’s the great thing about covering horse racing. I think all of us can say we get a lot of access. I know we get more than any other sport.
Everybody has been very professional. We’ve made it clear none of us take it personal, that this is the course of my duties. And I think people can see the hard coverage I’ve given horse racing, but I’ve also given very fair, very ... I don’t want to say soft, but I’ve written features and profiles, too. I’m not always banging on everybody. It’s a credit to both Zayat and Baffert that they continue to talk to me and we have buried hatchets along the way. So yeah, I got a lot of access and I think everybody in the sport wants to tell their story, and especially with this horse. He was first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. They wanted to talk about it!
AMERICAN PHAROAH'S CONNECTIONS
At any point along the way did you feel that this felt different than other horses who had come close to winning the Triple Crown in the past?
Yeah, I knew after the Preakness that it was his. He just, that Kentucky Derby was probably the race that really, the first Derby winner that I thought, “this is the real deal.” The way he came back and fought it off, he gave it everything he got and then to come back and just rocket away from everybody in the Preakness — I knew that was very impressive. It was really exciting, just as a horse fan. I thought this was a great crew of horses, great 3-year-olds. He was tested and he didn’t get easy fields, so I knew coming into the Belmont … I just had a feeling that he was the one to do it. Victor was so relaxed. Baffert was so relaxed.
The only other time I thought it was possible was Smarty Jones. All the other ones, you can always look and see little holes in their resumes, but this one had done it all and, in fact, he was the standard that I always hold them to when they get to the eve of the Belmont. Now I can use American Pharoah, Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat, they were all very good 2-year-olds. Two, they run from the front and play catch me if you can and just intimidate horses. And with the exception of American Pharoah, the previous three were New York-based and knew how to get a handle on the Belmont [Park] oval. That’s the only thing he didn’t check the box on. But he had everything else. Hell, he was the 2-year-old champion. He didn’t sneak up on anybody and take anybody by surprise in his 3-year-old year.
Well, maybe we have another one on our hands this year then.
What do you think?
I don’t know, I really don’t. I’m a gambler by nature, so I always like to try to beat the chalk.
You absolutely should! The Derby is the most unpredictable race, so you’ve got to take your shots at the Derby. I won’t pick Nyquist and I’ll try to play against him. I think this year it just seems like a lackluster bunch to me. What do you think?
Just on speed it looks like it, but I was reading something recently about how in a field where you don’t have a lot of fast horses then grit and tactics, especially in the Kentucky Derby, come into play a lot more. So, maybe you find another closer wins the race, another Mine That Bird. At least the fans will love that; they love a good, longshot closer.
Well, that’s true and basically every year I root just for somebody to win two, just because it’s more exciting that way and then hopefully the racing gods take care of the third one.
AMERICAN PHAROAH WINNING THE KENTUCKY DERBY
A lot of what we were writing about last year was: “Is it going to happen again? Are we going to see another spoiled Triple Crown?” We had so many that won the first two and missed the third that people weren’t as hopped up about it as they may have been in the past, because they had been teased so many times.
Absolutely. I think a lot of people, including me, wondered if it can be done again. And that was just because you had so many failed bids and so many ways they found to lose. You have the breed changing, there’s fewer horses, they are less sound and durable. They’re not bred. I mean, as a handicapper you know this. You look at the Tomlinson [Ratings] for the Derby distance. In 1998, when I started doing this, half the field would be in the 300s, a couple in the 400s for a mile and a quarter in the dirt. You go look now at the last five or six Derbys, it was rare to have them over a 300. You never saw anybody that just screamed I am going to go a mile and a quarter. And I’m still sort of convinced that none of them are being bred to do a mile and a quarter and that last eighth of a mile they’re stumbling, and it’s who stumbles there fastest.
I wanted to talk a little bit about Ahmed Zayat because I had just finished reading that section of the book yesterday but also because, at least for me, he turned out to be one of the more interesting characters in this story, mainly because he’s a surprising character. Going into it I was prepared to not root for him and to see him as being this, more of a heel than a hero. But as I got to know him more, I actually started to like him and root for him. I saw him as somebody who had a connection to horse players and horse racing fans in the sport in a much more real way than I think I gave him credit for early on. At first, I just saw him as another wealthy guy spending bazillions of dollars on horses and trying to buy every race. I started to like him more when I realized he was a champion of the everyday fan, that he connected to us more than he seemed to connect to other owners, so I related to him a lot more the more I got to know about him. I wonder if that was your experience, too, because I know you’ve written some things about him that were a little bit critical in the past, but in the book it seems like you have more of a sympathetic view of his role of all this.
He’s a rich character and I mean that as in, he’s a bountiful, complex, fascinating guy. Where he’s from and what he did — building a brewery in Egypt to sell beer to the Muslims! If you think about that, that’s quite a feat! He’s a gambler. Hey, who doesn’t like a gambler? And, he bets with both hands. He’s exuberant. I’ve been at the track and I’ve seen him when he’s won and seen him when he’s losing — and I’m not talking about when his horses are racing. I mean he’s out there making bets. He’s surrounded by this very nice family, and it’s definitely one of their shared enthusiasms and pastimes. They like the races. And he’s done pretty well by his horses.
Now, I think he is a fascinating guy where and I’m not objecting to saying “more sympathetic,” It isn’t that, it’s just that in the nature of newspapering, when I had to write about him it was because he was bankrupt, he wasn’t paying his bills. There was an investigation of known gambling associates, the Jelinsky brothers. It was all in very narrow focus. It’s different when you get 300 pages and 80,000 words. These were 800 to 1,000-word stories. When you get 85,000 words, you can paint a more rounded picture of the guy. Even in my newspaper stories, I was always conscious of trying to point out the good things he did and the way he promoted the sport, the lives he touched, like that young man who died of cancer. You just get more time and more ability to sketch out a rounder character, and I’ve been able to watch him over the course of all of that. It’s not only him, but a lot of people feel like they’re being persecuted when they end up in the paper, and I get that. I think Baffert will tell you, and most people I’ve had to write tough stuff about, they’ll tell you that I do show up and I do pick up my phone and I do let people yell at me and challenge my facts. So, I think that’s why I’ve continued to have access over the years to a lot of these people. I do the best I can, they do the best they can and we kinda keep moving down the road.
Did you find yourself surprised by the way that he approached American Pharoah’s career all the way to the end of the year, choosing to keep running him until the Breeders Cup Classic?
No, I wasn’t surprised. There were a couple of things going on at the end the career. This was a horse of a lifetime. Bob Baffert said Bode could’ve trained the horse. Ahmed said he’ll never have another one like that. So, they knew they had something special. He is a good promoter of the game. He wanted to keep American Pharoah running as long as he could. He didn’t take the horse straight to Coolmore the weekend after the Belmont, which was very admirable.
At the same time, you have to be honest … he had skin in the game, too. He had bonus money to run after in the Haskell [Invitational Stakes], Travers [Stakes] and the Breeders’ Cup [Classic]. So, it was a good business decision to keep him running. But I think everybody does the right thing when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presents itself. And I think that’s exactly what we saw happen. Everybody knew this was a once in a lifetime horse, and they treated him and the situation like that throughout the year.
WINNING THE BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC
The thing that I can say I was surprised by, and I applaud that they did, was come to the Travers. Because Baffert had told Gary Stevens and everybody else that he doesn’t like racing there. He hadn’t had a great record, it’s a tough track to win on and he told Gary Stevens, “I’m never going back there unless I know I have a horse that’s 10 lengths better.” He didn’t have to go to Saratoga. That was a tough deal. You lay off June until the Haskell and then three or four weeks into the Travers, that’s a lot to do quickly. And it leaves you with no really good plan to go into the Breeders’ Cup.
They could have gone to the Pennsylvania Derby, made a ton of bonus money.
They would have made a ton of money to basically run against nobody. The Pacific Classic [Stakes], everybody said they’d do whatever they wanted him to do. Churchill was going to write another race. So, they didn’t have to go to the Travers. They were a little vulnerable. That’s a big race, there were good horses going there. But the thing I applaud them for is they went out with a sense of the history in mind. I’m out on the East Coast. I am biased. I think Saratoga is the best racetrack in the world. I write in the book that it is the “Vatican of the sport.” That Friday workout, that probably took a lot out of him. That’s what they said, and I’ll believe them. But to see 15,000 people to show up there on a Friday morning just to see this horse go around at a gallop, I mean that doesn’t happen at a lot of places. Everybody talked about it all summer and the anticipation up there was just tremendous. They wanted to see this horse. And I sat down there behind Bob on the rail during the workout, and he kind of watched the horse but he was watching the people. And even he knew. And you know, if you’ve got to lose a race, that was the way to lose a race. That was a gallant loss.
That night he goes to the Wishing Well, which is an old institution up there. Baffert walks in and gets a standing ovation — nine o’clock at night. And that told you all you need to know. Nobody was disappointed that horse lost. They were more grateful that he had come. Baffert said the next morning, “there’s no way I could have taken this horse to Parx.” That kind of goes back to my thing that when everybody does the right thing when they have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I think that dictated. I think they listened to the horse and they gave the sport what it needed.
For so long, we’ve all said that a Triple Crown winner would be what the sport needed to get some pep back in its step. Now that we’ve had one, and we’re now ankle deep into the next Triple Crown season, do you see any evidence that there’s an uptick in interest in the sport?
It’s given it a boost. Just go back and look at the ratings for the Belmont, the Haskell, the Travers, the Breeders’ Cup: all up. And all the ratings are higher than Premier League soccer as well as several other sports that get more publicity. Victor Espinoza doesn’t get vaulted into the mainstream of the mainstream with “Dancing with the Stars,” unless that horse wins the Triple Crown. He’s not on magazines and the horse is not in magazines and morning shows and everything else. So, it’s a tremendous amount of momentum and the sport has capitalized on it as much as they can. But at the same time, let’s be honest, it’s a niche sport and it’s going to remain a niche sport, and it’s in good company as a niche sport. Golf, tennis, they have the luxury that people can actually play the game, a lifetime of fans who like to play the games.
Here’s the facts: there are 30 million people right now who are going to pay attention for the next eight weeks who don’t pay attention for the rest of the year. They’re there to see beautiful horses run fast. The pomp, the pageantry, the history ... it’s America’s oldest sport. They don’t want to see a horse break down or a horse mistreated or hear about multiple drug violations, I mean, that’s going to turn them off. And then you have the 1 1/2 to 3 million hardcore fans who are the lifeblood of the industry, who play year round and who pay attention year round. Well, they don’t want to get beat by super-trainers and hear about the drugs and the jockeys this and that, they want to be insured that their two bucks is going to a level playing field. Both of those expectations are incredibly reasonable and should be the standards by which the whole industry operates. Our core players getting a great product, a fair product, and when something is wrong we immediately go in and clean it up and punish the guy and ban somebody. The people who are turning in for Derby day on TV want to see these beautiful horses at their best, and they want to be assured that everything is being done to make sure they are healthy and being treated well, not only during their racing career but after their career is over as well.
Do you think that just on the score of bringing new fans to the game that American Pharoah has made a significant impact?
Well, you saw more when he was still running. I mean he was turning out massive crowds everywhere. But yeah, I think people are going back to the track and giving it a chance again, and there are models out there of how it can be a first-class sport entertainment vehicle — something to enjoy with family. Shorter, better meets. More emphasis on your customer base and showing them a good time.
Photo courtesy of Mary Kennedy
As a turf writer who is taking up the mantel for a lot of storied turf writers that came before you, now that you’ve written the book on this once-in-a-lifetime Triple Crown winner, what else is there for you as a writer? What’s next for Joe Drape?
This book is sort of an exorcism of my horse racing thing. I have owned horses, played horses and gone to horse tracks all my life. I ended up writing about them by pure accident. After I came to the Times, I was a college [sports] writer and the guy before me moved on or retired, and I was the stop gap for a while and I ended up keeping it just because I knew about the sport, and it’s been great. I’ve met a lot of great people; I’ve learned a lot. This book allowed me to get behind the scenes and tell the story of breeding, which has always fascinated me. The backsides, the sales … I feel like I’ve been sitting on a pile of horse information that I finally got to use in this book.
This is my seventh book and I’ll keep writing more. My next book is about how you become a saint in the Catholic church, which is about the farthest thing from this. But books, newspapers, whatever it is … I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep telling stories.
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