The man who called Pharoah's greatness

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Clocker Gary Young timed the horses during training from the fifth floor of Churchill Downs. May 3, 2016. (Photo: By Pat McDonogh, The CJ)

Gary Young is the prophet who failed to profit.

The California racetrack clocker was among the first to grasp the greatness of American Pharoah and became an early source of his Triple Crown buzz, but he never did cash a ticket on the horse he compared to the young Michael Jordan.

If that seems odd, consider the odds.

“He was 2-to-1 the first time he ran and I have a rule: I don’t take less than 5-2 on a horse, and I don’t take less than 3-1 on a first time starter,” Young said. “There’s just too many ways to lose and only one way to win.”

In more than three decades of professional gambling, the 54-year-old Young has played the percentages well enough to make a living beating the house and to market his expertise as a bloodstock agent. By his own estimate, Young has had a piece of close to 200 winning Pick Six tickets and a hand in the purchase of 17 Grade I stakes winners.

Yet Young neither claims nor deserves credit for discovering American Pharoah. His role in the narrative was to help hype him.

Prior to the 2015 Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs’ publicist Darren Rogers believed American Pharoah to be a transcendent thoroughbred, but without “the buzz that the horse deserved.” Recalling Young’s enthusiasm for the colt based on close observation at Santa Anita and Del Mar, Rogers asked the clocker for some comments to enliven a press release distributed six days before the Derby.

"I have been doing this for 35 years,” Young said, “and he might be the best horse I've ever seen.”

As George Halas discovered while promoting his startup Chicago Bears, “editors like superlatives.” Young’s quote quickly gained wide circulation, appearing in the Wall Street Journal as well as many mainstream newspapers and trade publications. And there was more.

"He's simply like Michael Jordan and stays in the air like he did in his rookie year,” Young said. “He stays in the air longer than any horse, and you get the feeling that there's not one gear left, but he may have two, three or four gears."

Young has clocked thousands of horses during his career. Many have matched the times of American Pharoah’s workouts. A few have run faster. But a discerning clocker can see things that don’t show up on a stopwatch. When a colt of American Pharoah’s caliber comes along, though, even a novice will take notice.

“It was nice to predict that he would do what he did,” Young said. “But in my mind it wasn’t that difficult a puzzle to figure out. ... He just moved different. There was just an effortless glide to the way he did it.”

This is not something you see every day at the racetrack. Or every year. And not, so far, in 2016.

“Horses like Pharoah are not going to come around every year,” Young said. “It might be a long time before we see one that is his equal. This crop to me, going in, on a scale of 1-to-10 would be about a five. Last year, Pharoah made it a 10, but even if you take Pharoah out of the equation, last year’s crop was about a 7 of an 8.”

In Young’s estimation, Firing Line and Dortmund, second and third in last year’s Derby, were better than any of this year’s field.

“They’re probably saying, ‘Damn it, why couldn’t we have been born one year later?’” Young joked.

Young remembers calling Jerry Bailey, the Hall of Fame jockey turned race analyst, to rave about American Pharoah’s running style, then watching him fade to a fifth-place finish in his debut at Del Mar. But when trainer Bob Baffert brought him back for the Grade I Del Mar Futurity, this time with more attractive odds, Young was “salivating,” poised to pounce.

“I know Baffert,” Young said. “Bob wouldn’t run him in the Del Mar Futurity if he didn’t have confidence in him. I was sitting there thinking about betting him and in the second to last (tote board) flash he went from 6-1 to 5-2, something like that. That was (owner Ahmed) Zayat. You didn’t need to be Dick Tracy to figure out who that was.”

American Pharoah would pay $8.40 to win on a $2 bet that day, the largest payout of any of his nine victories. The only other time he would pay better than 2-to-1 on a winning ticket was for the Kentucky Derby. By the end of his 3-year-old campaign, his buzz could have drowned out a foghorn.

Before embarking for Arkansas and the March 14 Rebel Stakes, Baffert ordered a workout from the gate at Santa Anita. He asked rider Martin Garcia to take American Pharoah 7/8 of a mile, then watched him keep going with startling speed and an effortless stride. He then sought out Young to confirm what his eyes had seen.

“I told Gary, have you ever anything seen like that?” Baffert recalled. “I’ve never seen anything like that. All the years, I’ve never seen anything like that.”

“Bob gets good horses,” Young said. “To this day, when he has a horse work good out of the gate I’ll say, ‘It was good but it wasn’t like THE gate work.’ He looks at me and says, ‘We’re not going to see THE gate work again. We’re not going to see anything like that.’”

Young considered placing a future bet on an American Pharoah Triple Crown but concluded the odds were too short for a three-race parlay.

“He was like 10- or 12-1,” Young said. “If I’m going to bet a horse in the future book, he’s going to be like 25- or 30-1. ... You can have the best horse by lengths and if he gets a tummy ache the day before or a foot abscess, you’re out of luck.”

Damon Runyon was so sure “All horse players die broke” that he published both a poem and a short story with that title. Gary Young’s goal is to get out both solvent and sane.

“It’s not meant for everybody, both from a stress standpoint and a sanity standpoint,” he said. “It’s not something I would advise for people to do, especially with the proliferation of the workout information these days.

“I’m not sure how much longer I’m going to do it on a daily basis. I’ve been doing it 35 years and to be quite honest, there’s no secrets anymore. The days of me finding $70 and $80 first-time starters, they’re way back on the freeway now.”

To find another American Pharoah, that could take decades.

Tim Sullivan can be reached at (502) 582-4650, or @TimSullivan714 on Twitter.

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