This week, VICE Sports looks at the topics, people, and things that made news in 2015. You can read our collection of year-in-review stories here.
You could say that American Pharoah was born to run. As the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, he is the product of highly calculated mating that his breeders believed would bring success at the track. And he was fast, no doubt—one of only 12 horses to pull off the treble, a feat so difficult that some within the racing community had resigned themselves to the possibility that no other Triple Crown winner would come in their lifetime. American Pharoah won nine of 11 races in his two years on the racetrack and banked more than $8 million for his owners Zayat Stables. His final race, the Breeders' Cup Classic, was the victory gallop topping off an unmatched career. It proved once again that he is the greatest racehorse of a generation.
But really, American Pharoah was born to breed.
In February, the breeding shed opens at Ashford Stud, the American outpost of the world's most powerful thoroughbred operation, Coolmore—Pharoah's home for the foreseeable future—where the Triple Crown winner will embark on the next phase of his career: stud duty.
All that running around in circles American Pharoah did over the past two years was just a means to an end, the dress rehearsal before he hits the big stage. In just one year, the earnings he's scheduled to make from his polygamous sex life could eclipse the millions he made on the track.
Coolmore has placed a $200,000 price tag on sex with American Pharoah, payable when that roll in the hay produces a live foal. That makes his semen the second-highest priced spunk in North America after super-stallion Tapit, whose offspring won a collective $16.8 million in 2014. Tapit's breeders charge a cool $300,000 per mating session.
Tapit didn't start out at that price; he began his stud career over a decade ago at $15,000 and his his fee steadily rose as it became clear his semen was laced with rocket fuel. In the '80s, breeders lined up to pay $1 million to mate their mares to Northern Dancer, the king of studs, with no guarantee of producing a foal.
"It's a hell of a lot of money but the high price is limiting access," said bloodstock agent, Mick Flanagan. "Only so many breeders and mare owners are going to risk spending that much to breed their mare to him."
It's a teenage boy's dream: from the middle of February till June, three times a day, Pharoah will mate with upwards of 200 of the fastest, richest and most beautiful mares in the land. Each roll in the hay will only take about 30 seconds, but each will carry the hope that another great horse will be born.
When Coolmore bought Pharoah's breeding rights from the Zayats, the colt had not won the Triple Crown. Bloodstock agent Bradley Weisbord said winning the Crown turned Pharoah from a $30,000 per breeding stallion (for winning the Derby) into the $200,000 stud he is now. Weisbord estimates that Pharoah could net $20 to $30 million for Coolmore next year when his first babies are born, just from stud fees alone. If Pharoah likes having sex and is good at it, he could have stud career that lasts 20 years.
But if the weight on on his shoulders as he stood in the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes, hoping to snap a three-decades old drought since the world had seen its last Triple Crown winner, was heavy, it pales in comparison to the pressure that he is under over the next five years to produce offspring just like him.
"Everything has to go right," said Weisbord, who specializes in stallion brokerage. "There's been Triple Crown winners and there's been great racehorses that have been terrible stallions. They are not going to give him a pass once his babies start to run. They need to be runners in order for him to carry on his legacy."
American Pharoah didn't immediately impress the racing cognoscente. A solid bay horse with middle-of-the-road pedigree, he was once described as looking like a "plain brown wrapper" as a yearling and he didn't impress buyers enough to pay the $300,000 reserve price his breeders and then-owners, Zayat Stables put on the colt when they put him up for auction.
Pharoah finished fifth in the first race of his career. According to footnotes on Equibase, a Thoroughbred database, he was "unsettled" in the post parade and paddock, and in the race he "weakened in the stretch". In other words: he was nervous for his first day of school and tired himself out. But that would be the only race he would lose until after the Triple Crown, when he finished second in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August.
That accomplishment alone makes him worth his weight in the Thoroughbred industry. There's a crass expression in the game that says "nobody commits suicide with a good two-year-old in their barn", a phrase born out of the dream of every racehorse owner of winning the Kentucky Derby.
As Dermot Ryan, manager of Ashford, said in an email: "For those people that want to operate at the very highest levels of the game you can't afford to ignore a horse like American Pharoah."
But in a billion-dollar industry—with new stallions popping up each year, and established ones like Tapit proving year-after-year they are worth the investment—the court of public opinion in the Thoroughbred breeding industry is fast and fickle.
No one knows this better than Ashford. In 2000, Coolmore, headed by Irishman John Magnier, shelled out a reported $70 million, the most money ever spent on a horse, for the breeding rights of Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. To Magnier, and the rest of the horse racing industry, a Derby winner with a blue-chip pedigree and the body of Adonis seemed like a license to print money. FuPeg, as he is known in racing circles, started out his stallion career in February of his four-year-old year, just like Pharoah will, but for a price of $150,000. And just like Pharoah will be, FuPeg was matched with the best mares money could buy. To date, FuPeg has not produced a Kentucky Derby winner or a horse with a household name. His fee has sunk to $7,500.
Then there's the champion Cigar. After getting a slow start to his career, he stormed down racetracks all across America and won the Dubai World Cup earning just shy of $10 million in purses. His retirement to stud, though, was far less remarkable. In his first year, he failed to get his first 34 mares pregnant—he was found to be infertile.
Coolmore will not know if Pharoah's fertile or not until he sees his first mares this spring, and while there is insurance to protect investors against the possibility, there's nothing to safeguard the industry from the disappointment.
"It all starts with his fertility in February when the breeding shed opens up," said Weisbord. "And not only does he have to get mares pregnant, but he has to be a good breeder – meaning he wants to have to jump mares, three, four times a day. So you have to be a good breeder, have the fertility work, have the live foals born, then have the weanlings and yearlings look good and the two-year-olds be fast and the two-year-olds be runners."
Both Weisbord and Flanagan are optimistic, albeit cautiously, that Pharoah will live up to his (misspelled) name and rule the bluegrass and its breeding world.
"He's got a better chance than any stud to make it," said Flanagan. "I'd be shocked if he doesn't do well, but at the end of the day, we deal with mother nature on a daily basis and we don't know what she's going to serve up. And it's brilliant."