A superstar gets farmed out by a cash-strapped owner

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American Pharoah achieved what history tells us is all but impossible, winning horse racing’s Triple Crown.  He became the 12th in a century and a half to do so and with Belmont Stakes speed exceeded only by Secretariat in 1973.  In fact, his final quarter mile was faster than Secretariat’s.  He won the Belmont by 5 ½ lengths.

So now the sport has what it’s been seeking for 37 years, a Triple Crown winner, a true superstar who’s superior at any distance, any weather, to any other 3-year-old horse.

His owner, Egypt-born Ahmed Zayat, who lives in New Jersey, saw the significance of the Triple Crown several days before it happened:  “A sport without star is no sport.”

A physician’s son who learned to ride horseback growing up in a suburb of Cairo,  Zayat deserves all credit for buying and nurturing a bay colt who was discounted – to $300,000 — at a yearling sale because he was limping from a cut ankle.

Zayat put him with the rock star trainer Bob Baffert, he of the white mane, Hollywood sunglasses and ready quip, who is – now without question — the dominant big-race horse trainer in this country.

Nobody matches Baffert at stretching a horse’s distance beyond its breeding.  He did that with Pharoah, as he did with Paynter, Bayern, Real Quiet and other Grade 1 stakes winners. 

Baffert, 62, suffered a major heart attack two years ago.  With too much on his mind he forgot his medication on Belmont day but managed to stay calm enough to avoid cardiac stress.

In his moment of greatest glory, he modestly deflected discussion of what he did to develop a champion.  “This should be all about the horse,” he said.

Zayat said much the same, that “it’s about defining the greatness of American Pharoah.”  But now we see Zayat limiting his greatness, retiring this colt before his prime.  He will go to Coolmore Ashford stud farm to begin breeding early next year.

So he will have perhaps three more races: Haskell Invitational (Aug 2, Monmouth Park), Travers Stakes (Aug. 29, Saratoga) and Breeders Cup Classic (Oct. 31, Keeneland).

Premature retirement?   He’s an adolescent, not fully grown.  And if there was any doubt, he proved to us in the Preakness monsoon that he loves to race, no matter the conditions.

Not that I’ll shed tears for any adolescent male whose only job will be to service two shapely, well-bred females every week.

This is not about the horse, this is about the fans.  In a sport that’s lacking in that regard.  Though you wouldn’t know it by the 90,000 who roared their lungs out at Belmont Park.

I’m tempted to say what Zayat has done, snatching this rising star out from under us, is un-American.  But the truth is it is very American.

A Manhattan chef works 15 hours a day, six days a week, to build a temple of food, becomes famous and sells his restaurant for millions.  And then — what a surprise — the kitchen ceases to be great.  The star is gone.

Zayat did not become involved in horse racing for money only.  There are hundreds of industries where an entrepreneur can find a better rate of return.   No doubt he loves horses and the racing business.  His son, Justin, is manager of his stable.

But it’s still a business.  If American Pharoah wins every race he can run as a 4-year-old, he might earn $6 million.  As an equine gigolo, he can bring in $100,000 per tryst, and he’s projected to father 100 foals a year.  So that’s $10 million guaranteed, compared to $6 million, no guarantees.

Secretariat was retired to stud at 4 but had fertility issues and did not have breeding success anywhere comparable to his racing record.  Still, he made more money in the barn than he did on the track.

Of course there’s risk that next time AP runs, injury could end not only his racing career but his life.  Recall Barbaro winning the 2006 Kentucky Derby and shattering his leg two weeks later in the Preakness and never healing.  In 2008 we were sickened by the filly Eight Belles being euthanized a few minutes after finishing second in the Derby.

But I wish Zayat had thought more about why he got into racing in the first place.  It was because it’s friendly competition, fun and games, a 2-minute thrill on demand that no other legal sport can offer.

This could have been the start of a racing renaissance, as an already iconic horse continues winning and gaining converts to a sport that in the 1950s was more popular than the NFL and NBA.

Affirmed, the last to win the Triple Crown before Pharoah did, raced 13 times the year after.  He won eight of those starts, and he and his owner, jockey and trainer were celebrated and beloved everywhere they went.  I wonder what that was worth.

So why did Zayat sell out the sport?  It could be, absurd as it is, he needed the money. 

It’s often said the only way to make a fortune in horse racing is to start with a large fortune.  Like Zayat did, by selling low-quality beer in Egypt.

Horse racing is the Sport of Kings because it can bankrupt anyone else.  Like it did Zayat, who typically races 200 horses a year, bringing in more than $6 million in purses.  Nonetheless, in 2010 Zayat Stables filed for bankruptcy.

Zayat is brilliant but also impetuous.  He once fired Baffert, and he often gets carried away with his betting.  He recently was named in litigation concerning some $3 million in gambling debts.  He wagers money on credit at racetracks to generate instant cash flow.  “Hedging,” he calls it.

He denies he’s broken laws but acknowledges a gambling habit of $200,000 a week.  “I like gambling on horses,” he told The New York Times.  “Everybody has a different wallet size.”

Until alleged financial improprieties were publicized, he was one of those immigrant success stories that explain the building and constant rebuilding of America.

I was hoping that being from another country, one with far more history than ours, he would not be as obsessed as we are with the almighty dollar.

I was hoping he’d do everything possible to promote American Pharoah’s historic racing career for another year.  Even if it means making less than he can make with stud fees.

But once again, it’s all about the money.  Nothing else.

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