LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert and his crew made a sentimental journey to see an old friend Monday afternoon. They visited American Pharoah at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Kentucky, about an hour’s drive east of Louisville.
“When I saw Pharoah, I got a little lump in my throat,’’ Baffert said. “I think he recognized us. He hasn’t changed at all. He’s still a sweet horse, and he still loves people.’’
Last year’s Triple Crown winner began his stud career in February and reportedly has gotten nearly 100 mares in foal. His fee is $200,000 per mating. Nice work if you can get it.
Pharoah arrived at Ashford in early November, a few days after his brilliant career finale in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at nearby Keeneland. Baffert admitted feeling down for a few months after seeing him go.
“A lot of horses have a small window of greatness, where Pharoah had a window all year long, which is very rare,’’ he said. “Usually, when you retire them, they’re starting to tail off. But with him, I was giving up a horse who was getting better and better.’’
Financial reality dictated that Pharoah couldn’t race as a 4-year-old.
“The economics of it, and the insurance costs, you can’t take a chance with these horses who are worth so much,’’ Baffert said. “But he went out the right way, and he needed to be rewarded, and what better way than to be a stallion?
“But we all fell in love with him, and if he was a gelding, it would have been great. Then we could have had him around for the rest of his life. I’d just keep him at the barn until he’s 25 years old.’’
Tepin gets easy victory
As expected, it was a tap-in for Tepin.
The Amazon queen of the grass dazzled again on Derby Day, coasting by 3 1⁄2 lengths in the Grade II Churchill Distaff Turf Mile. The 3-10 favorite, trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux also won the race last year. Tepin is 9-for-14 on turf, including six in a row, all stakes.
Next stop for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile heroine and filly turf champ? A trip to England in June to the world’s most prestigious race meeting. Derby weekend is great fun, but Royal Ascot makes it look like a country picnic.
“I guess it’s Royal Ascot here we come.’’
Big Blue Kitten sluggish
Big Blue Kitten, last year’s male turf champion, didn’t purr in the Grade I, $500,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. He finished fifth as the 2-1 favorite behind Divisidero ($15.40).
The Woodford was marred by a spill on the far turn in which Triple Threat, ridden by Jose Lezcano, stumbled over Kasaqui, who had clipped heels and fallen, throwing Paco Lopez. Lezcano also hit the turf, but Triple Threat stayed up.
Dr. Keith Latson, the on-call veterinarian, told Newsday: “Both jockeys are OK, and both horses appear to be OK, too. They were galloping around the turn just fine.’’
Before the race, Grand Tito was withdrawn after falling on his side in the paddock. “He got up immediately,’’ Latsos said, “and the trainer [Gustavo Delgado] said he was fine.’’
Elsewhere on the undercard: Catalina Red knocked out most Pick 6 players in the opening leg with a $30.20 upset in the 7-furlong, Grade II Churchill Downs . . . Taris ($8.40) dominated by 5 3⁄4 lengths in the 7-furlong, Grade I Humana Distaff . . . Ken Ramsey’s Camelot Kitten ($39.40) burned more Pick 6 tickets with a head victory in the Grade II, 1 1⁄16-mile American Turf. Chad Brown added blinkers and Irad Ortiz Jr. got the 3-year-old home in his first try on firm ground . . . Sharp Azteca ($28.20) ruled by 2 1⁄2 lengths in the Grade III Pat Day Mile for 3-year-olds. American Freedom, Bob Baffert’s 6-5 favorite, was never close and came in sixth.
The farrier’s tale
The blacksmith’s trade hasn’t changed over the centuries. Shoeing horses still is done with a hammer and nails. Steve Norman has been at it for 46 years. Although the labor is backbreaking, at least he never has to worry about being replaced by a machine.
“They’ve been shoeing horses this way since the 1600s,’’ Norman said while hammering away at hoofs on Churchill Downs’ backstretch. “If you can find a computer that can do this, please let me know. If you have a strong back and a weak mind, you can do it.’’
There’s an old saying, “No foot, no horse,” and a gifted blacksmith’s craftsmanship is prized. Norman is the farrier to the famous, shoeing Ashford Stud’s stallions, including American Pharoah and Uncle Mo.
Norman grew up in Nebraska with Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg and shod his 1987 Kentucky Derby winner, Alysheba. He also was the podiatrist for Derby heroes Go for Gin (1994) and War Emblem (2002).
All horses, not only thoroughbreds, need new shoes about every 30 days, and the pay is good — $100 to $150 per job in Kentucky, $200 to $250 in New York, where everything is more expensive.
Norman said bending over countless hooves has damaged his knees. Patting his left one, he said: “This one’s bone on bone, and every day I get out of bed, something else hurts. Like an old football player, only worse.’’
He said all he requires is a horse who will stand still for 20 minutes. War Emblem, the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, was not one of them. “He’d bite you in a minute,’’ Norman said. “He would have killed you.’’
Baffert, who trained War Emblem, said: “Yeah, he was a nasty horse. If he was on Facebook, people would unfriend him.’’
Where the 1 percent parties
The Derby, the epitome of self-indulgence and conspicuous consumption, is an irresistible lure for the 1 percent. How much does it cost? Well, if you’re counting, you don’t count.
Churchill Downs’ press box used to be on the sixth floor, overlooking the finish line, until somebody figured out that the track could make tons of money on Derby weekend by refurbishing it and evicting the scribes. Now it’s called The Mansion, and a track source said a two-day ticket for one goes for $8,500, plus $2,500 for a personal seat license, payable yearly.
Capacity is 300, and there’s a waiting list. For a group of 24 or more, there’s a discount: only $7,500 a head for world-class feasting, drinking and mingling.
A few years ago, Nassau County resident and thoroughbred owner Mike Repole entertained a large entourage there. Later, he had buyer’s remorse. His comment: “Instead of going to The Mansion, it would have been cheaper to buy a mansion.’’
Kentuckians leave out “to the” when asking if you’ll be attending the big event on the first Saturday in May. The eternal question: “Are you going Derby?”
Overheard wandering through Friday’s Kentucky Oaks crowd of 124,589, many of whom had consumed too many mint juleps: “This is crazy,’’ a woman said. “It’s like the Indy 500 on crack.’’