Horse Racing
Katherine Terrell, ESPN Staff Writer 54d

Why Triple Crown champs Justify and American Pharoah remain stars

Horse Racing

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The passage of time is striking deep in the heart of Kentucky horse country.

In a small cemetery at historic Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, there are gravestones in honor of the great horses that once lived there. Some, like Pulpit's, look as if they were placed there yesterday. Others, like that of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox, who died in 1954, are so weathered they are almost illegible.

But the one gravestone that draws visitors from all over is Secretariat's, which is beginning to get its own weathered look 30 years after his death. Secretariat's grave is almost always adorned with flowers from adoring fans. It's also covered with pennies, likely in honor of his late owner Penny Chenery.

Secretariat broke a 25-year-old Triple Crown drought in 1973 in brilliant fashion, winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths before retiring to stud later that year. It is clear, all these years later, that whatever he inspired in his fans then has never been forgotten.

Less than an hour away at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky, two Triple Crown-winning colts are trying to make their own history.

Time has passed there as well, even if it doesn't feel like it. American Pharoah, a Triple Crown winner in 2015, has lived there for four years, and his first foals have already hit the track. In that time, Justify has come and gone from the track, where he won six races and swept the 2018 Triple Crown before retiring after a brief career that spanned only four months.

American Pharoah and Justify live the quiet life, 70 miles away from their historic Kentucky Derby triumphs at Churchill Downs. While their lives were once filled with crowds who cheered them on as they roared down the homestretch, things are more simple now. They go to the breeding shed 2-3 times a day, spend a portion of their days outside or exercising, and occasionally get taken out for tours.

During those tours, it's clear they haven't been forgotten. Robyn Murray, who handles sales and marketing for Coolmore America, watches it every day. Seeing these horses somehow turns adults into kids again.

"We've had people propose in front of American Pharoah on the tours. ... It's happened four or five times," Murray said. "You get grown people come and see these horses and they burst into tears. It's a big deal. They're magnificent animals."

Murray estimates 100,000 fans have come through the gates of Ashford Stud since American Pharoah retired in 2015. The Pharoah effect is real, she said.

But what is it about these animals that inspires such loyalty?

Perhaps it's because people are seeing the embodiment of the impossible. After Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, there was a 37-year drought before American Pharoah came along to sweep the series himself. It had been so long that it was perceived to be an impossible feat in modern horse racing.

Justify, on the other hand, was never beaten while racing six times at four tracks over a span of four months. Because he didn't race as a 2-year-old, his feat was also considered almost impossible. And while Justify wasn't around long enough to inspire the same kind of fervor American Pharoah did, he certainly has his admirers.

"The Triple Crown is the Holy Grail of racing, and it had been 37 years before American Pharoah. ... People thought it wasn't possible anymore," Murray said. "For Justify to have come and do it the way he did it, it was incredible. I don't think we'll ever see it again. What he achieved was nothing short of remarkable, and I think it has drummed up a huge amount of interest."

It had been so long, in fact, before American Pharoah's accomplishment that the previous two Triple Crown winners, Affirmed and Seattle Slew (1977), had long since grown old and died before American Pharoah was even born. A farm had not stood two American Triple Crown winners at the same time since Affirmed and Seattle Slew were at Spendthrift Farm in the 1980s.

In essence, Justify and American Pharoah are living history. It's no wonder they draw regular visitors. Bob Baffert, who trained both colts, visits whenever he's in Kentucky. Justify's former exercise rider, Humberto Gomez, stopped by for a visit days before this year's Kentucky Derby, marveling at how the colt, now 4, had calmed down and taken to the farm life.

While breeding farms used to be immensely private, a visit to Justify or American Pharoah these days is just an appointment away.

"We're fully booked through the end of June," Murray said. "It's a great way for fans to come in to see them. Once they've retired from the racetrack, once upon a time, it wasn't really possible for them to come in and see these horses. So it's great."

Handling the horses is an immense responsibility, and everyone around them knows it. Richard Barry, the stallion manager for Ashford Stud, has been working with horses for decades, but even he could never have imagined he'd be in charge of such precious commodities. It's not an easy job, especially considering Barry joked that stallions are always trying to hurt themselves.

Even in the best of care, accidents can happen. Justify's sire, Scat Daddy, on the rise of being a star stallion, dropped dead of an apparent heart attack while coming in from the paddock in 2015. Barry said the loss was devastating to the farm. American Pharoah's sire, Pioneerof the Nile, WinStar Farm's top stallion, died of a heart attack at age 13 earlier this spring.

Though they might be priceless to the public, it's no secret that American Pharoah and Justify are extremely valuable, especially considering the early deaths of their sires.

American Pharoah's breeding rights were sold for a reported $20 million-$30 million before the 2015 Triple Crown, and Justify's rights were sold last year for a reported $60 million-$75 million.

American Pharoah, who stands for a private fee, bred more than 200 mares in North America alone in 2017, producing 159 foals last year. He will shuttle to Australia as well.

Justify will also shuttle to Australia and stands for $150,000 this year. Considering American Pharoah's sire unexpectedly died this year and Justify's sire also died young, they are worth their weight in gold.

But the fans, while interested in American Pharoah's first foals hitting the track this year, probably don't care about stud fees. American Pharoah, in particular, seems to inspire a special place in the hearts of his fans.

While Justify was whisked on and off the track in a career that spanned only a few months, American Pharoah seemed to be the people's horse. His gentle demeanor hasn't changed since his racing days, when he calmly accepted pats and camera flashes from the crowds that seemed to grow bigger with every race.

Even at stud, he hasn't changed at all.

"He's bombproof," Barry said. "Nothing fazes him. He's just a joy to be around. Justify is a bit of a boy. You need to know what you're doing around him. He's not a bad horse by any stretch of the imagination, but he's still a stallion, and he knows he's a stallion. He'd give you a run for your money if you didn't know what you're doing."

It will be years before American Pharoah and Justify establish a legacy in the breeding shed. If all goes well, they could produce the next generation of great horses. Perhaps one day they will sire a Triple Crown winner of their own. The odds, however, are just as tough as when they were making names for themselves on the racetrack.

As for their fans, they'll keep coming year after year, making the trek through the gates of Ashford Stud to stand beside greatness.

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