Book Excerpt: American Pharoah

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Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the new book “American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise. Published by Hachette Books, American Pharoah is written by the New York Times’ Joe Drape. 

It was an hour drive on I-64, and Baffert knew he was going to make it as soon as he learned that Silver Charm was coming home from Japan after a decade to taking up residence at Old Friends, a retirement farm for accomplished racehorses in Georgetown, Kentucky. He had two other horses there as well-Danthebluegrassman and Game On Dude. He wanted Jill and Bode to meet him as well. They were not yet a family when Silver Charm gave Baffert his first Kentucky Derby and launched his Hall of Fame career.

It was Silver Charm, really, that had given them all they had now. Baffert teared up as soon as the horse trotted over to the fence, looking every bit as tough as he did two decades ago. Baffert found himself tearing up more often these days. Silver Charm was twenty-one years old and was more white than silver. Like his trainer, he had aged and moved slower than he once did. Jill put her arm around her husband. She understood what this meant.

“He’s like your first love,” she said.

Baffert believed in fate. He thought back to 1996, his first Derby with Cavonnier and how he bought Silver Charm that week and had him in his barn at Churchill. When Cavonnier hit the stretch with a length lead, Baffert thought that he was going to get one over on the racing gods, bringing home the roses on his very first try.

Instead a horse named Grindstone, one of five D. Wayne Lukas trainees in the race, came from the clouds and caught Cavonnier by a nose. Baffert swore right then he was coming back to the Derby. As soon as he did, he worried that he might never have another horse worthy of the race. He needn’t have.

Silver Charm was the most competitive horse that had ever come through his barn. Baffert knew that when he led him over to the track, the colt was going to give him everything he had every time.

“He was a fighter, and that was hard on him,” Baffert said.

Silver Charm brought him back to the Derby, and in a replay of the previous year before, the colt was in front and looking like a winner when the field hit the stretch. Gary Stevens and Silver Charm had finally shaken off another gray horse named Free House that had beaten him the previous month in the Santa Anita Derby. Now, however, the Derby favorite, Captain Bodgit, was gearing up and the two were head-to-head.

“I thought, ‘Here we go again. I’m going to get beat right on the wire,’ ” Baffert said.

When he saw Silver Charm digging in, however, he knew that he was wrong to doubt his colt. Silver Charm was not going to let Captain Bodgit by him. They matched strides for seventy-five yards.

“He fought and he just dug in,” he said. “He was just a tough, tough horse. He didn’t want to win by a lot, but he was a true competitor. It’s something you can’t measure when you buy them. Like any great athlete, you don’t know until they get in that situation.”

Two weeks later in Baltimore, Free House, Captain Bodgit, and Silver Charm knocked heads again, thundering down the stretch once more, three wide and inches apart. Free House was inside, Captain Bodgit outside, with Silver Charm between them. When they hit the wire, it took a photo finish to sort out the winner. Silver Charm had gotten the bob.

They were bound for New York and a rare attempt at the Triple Crown, something that Baffert had not really considered a goal. He had not thought much beyond the Derby. He tried to treat it as a free roll, but he felt the weight of not only the sport, but also sports fans whom had been waiting nineteen years to witness a transcendent performance that would go in the history books.

In Silver Charm, Baffert knew he had a gutsy colt and a fighting chance. Was it enough? No, it was not. Baffert had the colt ready, and Silver Charm ran his heart out. Both were beaten, however, by the crafty ride of Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron on a talented colt named Touch Gold.

They had skipped the Derby and then lost all chance in the Preakness when Touch Gold stumbled out of the gate and went to his knees. He still managed to finish fourth. Everyone thought Touch Gold was a closer, but McCarron had a fresh, tractable horse and believed that the only way he was going to get by Silver Charm was to outfox him.

So in the Belmont, he sent Touch Gold to the lead early and then dropped back in the backstretch as if he were spent. He waited and watched as Kent Desormeaux and Free House went throatlatch-to-throatlatch with Silver Charm for the fourth straight race. Behind them, McCarron swung Touch Gold outside, beyond their vision, and cranked his colt up. Silver Charm didn’t see the horse charging on the outside of Free House. By the time Stevens did, with seventy yards to go, it was too late.

“Chris McCarron rode the most brilliant Belmont,” Baffert said. “When Free House took off after Silver Charm, he just let them go. Gary thought Touch Gold quit. He decided to take Free House on and once he beat him, here came McCarron. He waited, saved horse, rode a tremendous race.”

It was neither of their faults. Eighteen years later, we were all still waiting for a Triple Crown winner. Twice more, Baffert had failed to close the deal. He could have another opportunity this year, but he needed to take the first step on Saturday and win the Derby. Baffert rubbed the nose of his old friend and thanked him for putting him in this position once again.

 

– The 21c Musuem Hotel Louisville will present an evening with New York Times reporter and author Joe Drape in celebration of American Pharoah: The Untold Story of the Triple Crown Winner’s Legendary Rise from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday. The event will feature a Q&A led by Eric Crawford, followed by a Derby 2016 preview. During the signing books will be available for purchase courtesy of Carmichael’s Bookstore. There will also be a cash bar.

– Drape will also be signing copies of the book during an event starting at 7 p.m. at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington.