Making the Grade: American Pharoah


American Pharoah winning the Rebel Stakes on March 14 at Oaklawn Park. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2015 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win important races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.

This week we revisit our profile on American Pharoah, a bay colt we first took a close look at following his victory in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity Stakes on Sept. 3 at Del Mar. American Pharoah made a dazzling 2015 debut when winning the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 14, which cemented his spot in the field for the Kentucky Derby on May 2. 

Note that updated sections appear in italics and all staticstics and data also has been updated throughout.

American Pharoah posted consecutive Grade 1 victories to conclude his juvenile campaign and subsequently was crowned the Eclipse Award winner as champion two-year-old male. He missed a planned start in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and did not return to the races for 5 1/2 months following his win in the FrontRunner Stakes on Sept. 27 at Santa Anita Park. American Pharoah proved worth the wait, however, as he overwhelmed six opponents in a 6 1/4-length runaway victiry in the Rebel Stakes. The 50 points guaranteed American Pharoah a spot in the Kentucky Derby and he looked every stride a champion in the Rebel. 

Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard

American Pharoah

Bay Colt

Sire (Father): Pioneerof the Nile

Dam (Mother): Littleprincessemma,
by Yankee Gentleman

Owner-Breeder: Zayat Stables (Ky.)

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Ability: American Pharoah was listed as sold for $300,000 at the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings to Ingordo Bloodstock, but he ended up back in the hands of his breeder, Zayat Stables. Trainer Bob Baffert attributed the disappointing debut from American Pharoah to his loss of composure in the post parade. His second start went much more smoothly and Baffert believed that the Del Mar Futurity was a much better indicator of American Pharoah’s potential.

“We took the blinkers off, put cotton in his ears and schooled him a lot. He trained well, we decided he was ready and we put him in there,” Baffert said. “ He behaved himself [in the Del Mar Futurity] and showed what he could do. He did what we thought he’d do the first time.”

American Pharoah earned a 106 Equibase Speed Figure for the seven-furlong, Grade 1 victory. The final time for the Del Mar Futurity was less than a half-second off the track record set by Goldencents while winning the Pat O’Brien Stakes on Aug. 24, 2014.

American Pharoah returned on Sept. 27 for the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes, which was his first race on dirt and his first try around two turns. He passed this test with flying colors by controlling the pace and powering to a 3 1/4-length score. The 107 Equibase Speed Figure he earned was again a new career-best for American Pharoah, a great indicator in his first attempt stretching out.

Leading up to the Breeders' Cup, American Pharoah came up with a minor injury that led to him being scratched from the race. He was, however, flattered when Texas Red drew away to a dominant victory in the Juvenile. American Pharoah finished 5 1/4 lengths ahead of Texas Red in the FrontRunner, and his two Grade 1 wins were enough to secure the Eclipse Award.

It would be hard to script a better return to the races for American Pharoah than the Rebel Stakes. He controlled the pace and never was seriously challenged in a race that appeared to be extremely easy. He was never fully extended and still managed to record a new career-best Equibase Speed Figure of 108. Given the fact that American Pharoah was never challenged, he should be able to come back with a similar effort in his final Kentucky Derby prep race and another performance like the Rebel would set him up perfectly for the first Saturday in May.  

Running style: The addition of blinkers for the Del Mar Futurity sharpened American Pharoah’s focus. He flashed great early speed through a half-mile in :45.23 and just ran eight opponents into the ground.

American Pharoah also dictated the tempo in both the FrontRunner Stakes victory and his three-year-old bow in the Rebel. He clearly has plenty of speed but is willing to harness it when necessary. He ran the first three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.84 in the FrontRunner when he had some company up front and still came home fast. When none of his opponents dared to challenge him in the early stages of the Rebel, American Pharoah loped along through three-quarters in 1:15.22. There was no way he was going to be passed after that easy pace, and indeed none of his rivals was even in the same area code at the finish.


It would be nice to see American Pharoah rate just off the pace to see if he would be adaptable in the event that another horse challenges him in the early going of the Kentucky Derby. But one thing the new Road to the Kentucky Derby points system has done is largely eliminate pure sprinters. Speedballs who previously amassed sufficient graded stakes earnings in sprints at two and three now are forced to show ability in the key prep races around two turns that offer big points.

Make no mistake, American Pharoah will not be allowed to coast through six furlongs in 1:15 and change in a classic race, but the absence of sprinter speed could help those horses on or near the lead in the Derby, as it did for stalker California Chrome last year. Still, a race in which American Pharoah even just pressed a pacesetter before taking control would make him more versatile and thus far more dangerous.


Connections: Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’ has always been fantastic with two-year-olds, and his record with three-year-olds also is very strong. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times (Silver Charm [1997], Real Quiet [1998], War Emblem [2002]); the Preakness Stakes five times (Silver Charm [1997], Real Quiet [1998], Point Given [2001], War Emblem [2002], Lookin At Lucky [2010]); and the Belmont Stakes once (Point Given [2001]).

Victor Espinoza, who guided War Emblem to his classic wins in 2002 and California Chrome to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2014, has been aboard American Pharoah for each of his three career victories.

Zayat Stables is one of the leading owners in North America and has raced 13 Grade 1 winners since 2005, including Eclipse Awards finalists Bodemeister, Eskendereya, Zensational, Point Ashley, and Rightly So. The operation has raced three Kentucky Derby runners-up in Pioneerof the Nile (2009), Nehro (2011) and Bodemeister (2012). Zayat Stables is winless with 20 starters in the Breeders’ Cup.

In addition to American Pharoah, Zayat Stables also owns El Kabeir, the current points leader on the Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard, and multiple Grade 1-placed Derby hopeful Mr. Z.

Pedigree: American Pharoah is from the second crop of Pioneerof the Nile, who was a star for Zayat Stables and is off to a nice start at stud with six graded or group stakes winners from 102 starters through March 16. Pioneerof the Nile, by 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, was a Grade 1 winner at two and three who excelled at longer distances.

Additional Making the Grades

  • Competitive Edge
  • American Pharoah
  • Carpe Diem
  • Daredevil
  • Texas Red
  • Ocho Ocho Ocho
  • El Kabeir
  • Leave the Light On
  • Nasa
  • Dortmund
  • Calculator
  • International Star
  • Upstart
  • Ocean Knight
  • Far From Over
  • Metaboss
  • Itsaknockout

Pioneerof the Nile’s graded stakes winners Vinceremos and Cairo Prince both enjoyed some success on the 2014 Triple Crown trail and Social Inclusion finished third in the 2014 Preakness Stakes.

It’s too early to get a firm read on Pioneerof the Nile’s ability as a sire but he seems to be passing along his talent and stamina to his offspring.

The bottom half of American Pharoah’s pedigree does not offer quite as much promise. His dam (mother), Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman, was winless in two tries, both in sprints. She does have two winners from two foals to race with a Grade 1 winner to her credit.

Second dam (maternal grandmother), Exclusive Rosette, set a course record when sprinting on the grass and was a stakes-winning sprinter on the main track. Exclusive Rosette is the dam of graded stakes-winning sprinters Storm Wolf and Misty Rosette, the latter the third-place finisher in the Grade 1 Test Stakes at seven furlongs in 2006.

American Pharoah’s third and fourth dams also raced exclusively in sprints with neither able to secure a win.

The female half of American Pharoah’s pedigree leans very heavily toward speed, but there is a track-record of success with this cross, including very recently in the U.S. Triple Crown. Bodemeister was by Empire Maker, Pioneerof the Nile's sire, out of a mare by Storm Cat, the sire of the aforementioned Yankee Gentleman. Like American Pharoah, Bodemeister had plenty of speed and the ability to carry it around two turns. I would like to see a bit more stamina in the bottom half of American Pharoah's pedigree, but his elite performances in a pair of races around two turns has provided plenty of reason for Kentucky Derby optimism. 

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