Derby Memories: Rickelle's American Pharoah Story

Derby Memories: Rickelle's American Pharoah Story

I grew up with horses, and had an uncanny ability to relate to them. I was quickly able to develop relationships with the more difficult ones. I have made such good “friends” with some horses that I have left the paddock due to the horse’s attempts at trying to come over to me!

Prior to American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run, he won the Arkansas Derby in his final prep for the Derby. Baffert will send his horses straight to Churchill if their last prep is outside of California. If they race in California, he keeps them there until the week before the Derby, shipping them in at the last minute. Due to Pharoah winning in Arkansas, the colt was sent here several weeks before the big race.

I was very lucky to be one of the few photographers that were covering the handful of Derby contenders that happened to be on the grounds that early. I saw him the first morning he went to the track, and though I had been following him with interest (I always have to see a horse in person and how they move over the track before I get hooked lol), this very dark morning was what got me, let’s say, very intrigued. See, I fell in love with the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, and in a way, he is the reason that we moved to Kentucky. Unbridled was the sire of Empire Maker, a colt that came in second to Funny Cide in 2003, which was the very first Derby that my husband and I attended. Empire Maker in turn sired PioneeroftheNile, who finished in second to the crazy 50-1 shot, Mine That Bird, and it just so happens that I have Pioneer’s halter hanging on my wall. So, needless to say, I had hope in Pharoah. It didn’t hurt that he resembled his great-grandsire in looks and temperament, albeit minus all the chrome.

So, on the morning of his Louisville debut, his polished bay coat was as illuminated by the Churchill lighting as you can get prior to the sun making its bold appearance. As he walked to the track under his devoted exercise rider Georgie Alvarez, being accompanied by Baffert’s reliable assistant, Jimmy Barnes, who was aboard the soon-to-be-famous pony, Smokey, a voice broke through the quiet from the dark sidelines where several trainers and onlookers had gathered. “Hey Jimmy, is that really him or is it that his twin you’re just using to throw us off?” Jimmie laughed, and the bay with the short tail made his way to the track for his acquaintance with the Churchill oval.

Finishing his jog, they made their way back to the Baffert Barn, with myself tagging along. After walking the shed row a bit to do the routine cool down, the beautiful bay made his way to the bath area for his daily wash down. Now, if you follow the racing media around Derby, you know that you have the track work photos that get most of the coverage, however, as a photographer, you always try to get the coveted “bath shots”! As I was the only photographer there, I got to really spend some time watching the colt. The first thing I noticed was that he was very laid back, very inquisitive, and smart. Most normal people think of me as one of those “crazy horse people”, as I will talk to the horses whenever I’m by them. At this point, I think that most of the connections are used to me and my equine conversations. I talked to Pharoah as I do, and he did a funny little head cock as he turned to look at me, a trait that continued throughout our many mornings together.

(This is the head cock look that he gave me when I talked to him)

That morning did me in... I was completely hooked by the colt with the big personality. In the first couple of weeks, there were so many days that I was at the barn by myself, or with only one or two other photographers. The Derby media swarm hadn’t arrived yet to take over the favorite. During our mornings, I got to learn a lot about him as I know the connections pretty well, and I could always convince them to open up about Pharoah. All the while, I got to know him, the certain way that he would look when he saw me, in addition to how he would do his head turn and try to come over. Now, I am a realist, so whenever I notice a horse doing the things he was, I will stand back to see if it’s a trait that they do around others, just so I don’t feel like a fool if I tell an acquaintance and then it happens to someone else.

Remarkably, as much as that first encounter had drawn me in, that wasn’t what truly wowed me. That happened the first time he galloped over the sandy Churchill surface. The tandem made their way to the track, this time in the morning sun. They jogged off, headed to the frontside where they would turn and begin their first clip around the Downs. As I tracked him running through the turn, I noticed how he was running, he just looked like was floating. When the shining bay passed in front of me, I was in awe. I had never seen a horse glide so effortlessly over the top of this track. Surely it was just due to it being his first time, or something... I figured that there had to be an explanation and I would discover it the next day.

(From the frontside of the track when he decided he wanted to come over and visit)

However, the next day provided the same result, and if it was possible, he looked even stronger. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing pass in front of me. I told Georgie that even when he worked, the only way that I could track how fast they were going was to watch them through the turns, it was the only way to see his speed. To add to this, as well as proving to me that I wasn’t alone, one day when I was on a stand watching the force of nature that was American Pharoah, another trainer with a horse in the Derby also came up on the stand. As you could see Pharoah entering the turn, the trainer told whoever he was with to watch the colt. When he galloped strongly past the stand, the trainer said, “The only way any of us win is if that horse falls coming out of the gate!” I was blown away hearing that from someone that was running against him.

One morning it was raining, so I decided to make my way to the frontside to shoot the works. I stood under the jock’s weigh station since it provided some cover from the on-and-off again waterworks. There was no one else near me, so I was enjoying the quiet. (One of my favorite things in the world is being on the frontside in the morning when the track is muddy and there is no one else around making noise. You can hear the doves cooing in the peace that is Churchill. However, the best part is when the horses come thundering past, the sound of their hooves pounding the mud echoes off of the empty grandstand. You really have to experience it in person, as I have tried recording it and it just doesn’t give it justice.) It was only sprinkling when I spotted Georgie and Pharoah jogging their way to the front and their starting point. Georgie slowed his pace as they were getting close to the place where they would stop and turn to begin their exercise. Georgie was talking to Jimmie, when suddenly Pharoah turned his head toward me, took a detour from his path and made a beeline in my direction. Georgie whipped around to see what was happening. When he saw me he started laughing, realizing that his mount had spotted his new friend.

Those weeks leading up to the 2015 Derby are some that I will never forget and always treasure. Derby morning was electric, as always. There is just something about walking through the hallowed walls and the lines of vendor tents as the workers are feverously finishing their displays. Cleaning up the evidence of Friday’s Oaks and lilies, replacing them with the beautiful deep red roses that belong to the spectacle that is the Kentucky Derby. I always get goosebumps walking into the grounds, when it is quiet, the calm before the storm of 200,000 come pouring in. I always take a moment to soak it in, thinking of the history, and walking in the footsteps of those that have ventured before me.

Flashing forward to the day’s races, and the commotion that overtakes the track as the shining horses are walked over to be saddled, race, return to be unsaddled (hopefully after getting your picture taken in the winner’s circle) and then returned to the barn as the next group comes over for their race and shot at victory. In the midst of one of the races, I saw Georgie and he had to tell me about how disappointed he was that a pigeon had pooped on his suit coat that morning. I told him that it was supposed to bring good luck and he responded that Jimmie had told him the same thing and wouldn’t let him wipe it off! When they came over for the big race, sure enough, there was the white stain on the back of his coat.

During the running of the Derby, I will say that it is the one time that I almost blew getting my shot of the winner. As American Pharoah was battling down the stretch with Firing Line and stable mate Dortmund, I was too busy cheering him on to focus on taking pictures! At the last minute I pulled my camera up and started shooting, thankfully getting some usable shots! I was beside myself after the race and managed to snag a couple of roses from his blanket. (I also have a Preakness Black-eyed Susan and Belmont Carnation from his winning blankets).

The following weeks after the Derby were nothing short of amazing in getting to cover. There was the controversy of the bar shoe, and people were saying that he was losing weight and that he was looking dull. Apparently, they weren’t watching the same horse as me, because I was watching a horse that was thriving at Churchill Downs. It didn’t seem possible, yet he looked like he was getting stronger and more aggressive when he galloped. His works were phenomenal to watch in person. And for all the nay-saying, Pharoah actually gained weight between the running of the Derby and the Belmont. He took his race to every track that he went to. He skipped over the Pimlico surface in a raging downpour, and poured it on while drawing clear over the deep sandy Belmont surface to take his place in history, putting the nail in the coffin of the 37-year drought while becoming only the twelfth Triple Crown winner. My husband and I watched the Belmont from the Churchill grandstand, and yes, I bawled. There’s photographic evidence that my husband took!

After he gained his next claim to fame in becoming the first “Grand Slam” winner in proving victorious in the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland (I actually had to tell myself that it was just another horse race and actually got some great shots, although the” it’s just another horse race” thing didn’t work lol), the mighty champion was sent to his new home of Ashford Stud, where he was to begin his second career.

(From the Ashford photoshoot)

Some time passed before I got to see him again. He had a season of breeding under his belt and he was adored by thousands of new fans that flocked to the Versailles, Kentucky breeding farm to catch a glimpse of the history maker, and perhaps get their picture taken with the star. It was kind of hard to get into the farm that was once very open for visits. You had to be with a tour group, or have some kind of reservations. Due to this, I decided to use my connection of friendship with the Zayats to procure getting my own special photo shoot of the horse that I had grown so fond of. So, one sunny spring day I made my way to the farm, with a bag of carrots in tow, as that was his treat of choice. He was getting ready to be shown to a tour group and after that I was going to get my one-on-one time with him. I had begrudgingly come to the idea that he had been subjected to so many people that there couldn’t possibly be any way that he would remember me.

I got to join the “Pharoah Tour” group and stood back and listened to the spectators as they discussed him with great awe. I actually got my picture taken with him as everyone in the group that wanted one did. When the group was directed off to go see some of the other horses, it was my turn. His groom led him into the barn, inviting me to come along as they were getting him all gussied up for his photo shoot. As they got him in his grooming spot, I walked up to him and started talking to him like I always did at the track. He studied me for a second, like he was pulling up some long-ago memory. Then, to my surprise, he did his little head cock and walked over to me and put his head against me. It was all that I could do to hold back my tears as he stood there quietly while he was getting his feet shiny, mane perfect, and brushed to shiny perfection. The photo shoot was amazing and perfect, yet when you have subjects like him, they can’t go badly.

My time with American Pharoah will always be one of my fondest memories. The friendships and connections that were made will hopefully be lasting. I am so happy to see how well he is doing as a sire, although I always believed he would be incredible. Coming from a Derby winner that produced a runner-up, that produced a runner-up, that then produced a Triple Crown winner out of a great mare, the genes were there! Hopefully one day soon I will be on the backside visiting one of his colts or fillies that are taking their shot at immortality, forging another relationship that won’t soon be forgotten.

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum