VERSAILLES, Ky. — American Pharoah is led out of his stone palace of a barn, head up, eyes alert, a little heavier these days but still pretty well sculpted. In a few minutes, the champion will be walked over to the breeding shed, a mere 50 yards away. By now, the Triple Crown winner has the routine down pat.
No more early morning workouts under the watchful eyes of trainer Bob Baffert. No Victor Espinoza asking the big bay for every ounce of energy over 11 grueling races in 17 months. No more huge media crowds around him, or cameras clicking away at his every move. No more parades at Churchill Downs or Santa Anita Park.
Welcome to paradise, also known as Coolmore Ashford Stud, a magnificent 2,000-acre empire in the heart of Bluegrass Country. This is home to racing's first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, a luxurious resort for the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed in 1978, and just the 12th in history.
The latest edition of the Derby is Saturday, about 70 miles away at Churchill Downs. Nyquist is the early 3-1 favorite in a full field of 20, carrying an unbeaten record into the race in which the winner becomes the only horse with a chance to duplicate Pharoah's feat.
Nyquist trainer Doug O'Neill is well aware that more fans are paying attention.
"They now have heard a lot about horse racing in the last year, year and a half and that's a credit to Pharoah," he said, "and hopefully Nyquist can carry the torch farther."
At Ashford, mares are carrying the torch for American Pharoah. Two days after winning the Breeders' Cup Classic in his final race at nearby Keeneland on Nov. 1, he arrived at his new home to much fanfare. When the breeding season started in mid-February, Pharoah was ready, willing and able. Since then, he's covered about 100 mares, and could double that amount by the end of the season in June. He commands a stud fee of $200,000.
One thing hasn't changed.
"He's still as sweet and cuddly as he's always been," owner Ahmed Zayat said after a recent visit with American Pharoah. "He has taken to his new role like he did to the racetrack."
Here's a look at what's up with American Pharoah:
Breeding sessions are scheduled in the morning, afternoon and evening. There are 14 stallions at Ashford — 13 active, plus Thunder Gulch — and American Pharoah has shown he's a quick learner.
"He's a pro in the breeding shed," stallion manager Richard Barry said. "Everything has gone smoothly."
His first date was Untouched Talent, a broodmare who produced Bodemeister, a Zayat-owned horse who finished second in the 2012 Derby. She is expected to deliver Pharoah's first foal sometime in January.
Zayat has seen the breeding process.
"He's a champ, so nice. The girls love him," Zayat said. "He's as fertile as you can get at this point. Up to now, we've bred nine and they are all in foal, all pregnant. He's enjoying life. His condition is unreal and his coat shines."
If American Pharoah covers 175 mares in his first season — at $200,000 each — he would bring in $35 million for Coolmore, which bought breeding rights from Zayat last year. In his racing career, Pharoah earned $8.6 million.
When he first arrived at Ashford, American Pharoah was given a camp buddy, 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch. The thinking was an older, more experienced stallion would show the new kid the ropes of retirement. A little over five months later, "he's just one of the boys now," said Barry, "and has settled in to the same routine as all the other stallions.
"Thunder Gulch was an important part of that process and helped American Pharoah to settle, but now that he has got the hang of everything Thunder Gulch's work is done," he added.
Currently, American Pharoah shares the same barn as Munnings, Giant's Causeway, Competitive Edge and Verrazano. It's the closest barn to the breeding shed.
As for his daily routine, it's not complicated. Breeding in the morning, out in the paddock afterward, then lunch. Back to the breeding shed, to the paddock, dinner, and then they are bedded down for the night. However, if a horse is "particularly busy," Barry said, there's an evening breeding session.
"Horses are creatures of habit and like a routine," Barry explained.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Zayat has been back and forth to Churchill Downs in the past week, but won't be at the Derby. He says he'll be home in New Jersey with his family. He was in Louisville to celebrate the opening of the American Pharoah exhibit at the Kentucky Derby Museum.
Baffert is in the thick of the Derby again with Mor Spirit. The four-time Derby winner is far from the center of attention, but he's been signing autographs all week on the backstretch. He and his wife, Jill, and their son Bode visited Pharoah this week, and also showed up at the Derby museum.
"It's always great to go there and get your Derby fix," he said. "This horse has such a following. There's a lot of things people are going to see that they didn't even know about."
Mor Spirit ran second in the Santa Anita Derby, and is 12-1 on the morning line.
Espinoza, meanwhile, picked up the ride aboard Whitmore for the Derby. He had not ridden in many Derby prep races, but was a last-minute replacement for Irad Ortiz, Jr., who will be riding My Man Sam. He, too, visited American Pharoah this week.