In a perfect world, all exceptional champions should retire undefeated. The reality, though, is that the likes of Frankel and Ribot are very rare birds indeed. Timeform’s list of the highest-rated horses of the last 70 years acts as a reminder that horses as brilliant as Sea-Bird II, Brigadier Gerard, Tudor Minstrel, Abernant, Mill Reef, Dancing Brave, Dubai Millennium, Sea The Stars, Shergar and Vaguely Noble all suffered at least one defeat. So did the dual Arc winner Alleged and the Triple Crown winner Nijinsky.

Superstar American Pharoah has been retired to Coolmore's Ashford Stud

Superstar American Pharoah has been retired to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud

In other words, the phenomenal American Pharoah could be forgiven the second defeat of his career, when he failed to hold off his old foe Keen Ice in the Travers Stakes. That setback became nothing more than a dim and distant memory when the ‘real’ American Pharoah turned the Breeders’ Cup Classic into a procession at Keeneland, where Keen Ice finished more than 12 lengths adrift in fourth.

What fascinates me about American Pharoah is trying to identify the sources of his brilliance

The first American Triple Crown winner for 37 years therefore retired to Ashford Stud with his reputation fully intact. It is worth adding that none of America’s 12 Triple Crown winners has retired with an unbeaten record.

What fascinates me about American Pharoah is trying to identify the sources of his brilliance. His sire, the Santa Anita Derby winner and Kentucky Derby second Pioneerof The Nile, has shown considerable potential and may well prove worthy of the $125,000 fee being charged for his services in 2016. His 2015 yearlings, sired at a fee of $15,000, included individuals who made $500,000, $480,000 and $475,000, and his 2015 foals, sired at $20,000, weren’t far behind.

However his fee was $17,500 when American Pharoah was conceived and the colt’s dam Littleprincessemma, who was unplaced in two starts, is a daughter of Yankee Gentleman. This speedy son of Storm Cat never won at Graded stakes level and he has just four Graded winners, including a solitary Grade 1 scorer, among his total of nearly 500 foals of racing age. These figures help explain why he stood the 2015 season at a fee of only $3,500 in Louisiana.

I could add that Ecliptical, the sire of second dam Exclusive Rosette, was plying his trade at a fee of $700 in Florida in 1992, the year of this speedy mare’s conception. Although very well connected, Ecliptical had won only once in ten starts and he was sold for only $25,000 as a six-year-old. It was another Florida stallion, Tri Jet, who sired third dam Zetta Jet.

It isn’t my intention to criticise American Pharoah’s pedigree, nor to question his potential as a stallion. After all, it could be argued that Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, was no more fashionably bred. His sire Bold Reasoning – a $15,500 graduate of a two-year-old sale – had gained his best wins in the Jersey Derby and the Withers Stakes. And Seattle Slew’s broodmare sire, Poker, probably owed his position at stud to his being a product of the celebrated La Troienne female line, as much as to his racing career, which featured just seven wins from 36 starts. Seattle Slew, of course, developed into a champion sire, with numerous top performers among his total of 111 black-type winners from 1,103 foals.

The Triple Crown influence
So where does American Pharoah’s rare talent come from? I’m inclined to give most of the credit to the top half of his pedigree and his male line must be one of the prime suspects. His great-grandsire Unbridled matched American Pharoah by winning the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to exert a powerful influence on the Triple Crown events. He sired winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, with the Belmont winner being American Pharoah’s grandsire Empire Maker. Unbridled’s Kentucky Derby winner, Grindstone, has a Kentucky Derby winner and two Belmont Stakes winners descending from him, so Pioneerof The Nile has every right to make his mark at this level. Cairo Prince, from his first crop, had been the early spring favourite for the 2014 Kentucky Derby on the strength of three wins from four starts.

The first five generations of Pioneerof The Nile’s pedigree contain several horses who feature on Timeform’s list of all-time-greats, including El Gran Senor

Even so, I am tempted to look a little further back and I find it interesting that the first five generations of Pioneerof The Nile’s pedigree contain several horses who feature on Timeform’s list of all-time-greats. The third generation includes El Gran Senor, a champion at two and three who went desperately close to remaining unbeaten during his eight-race career.

Timeform rated him 136 and commented that “for superlative merit exemplified in one performance nothing in the 1984 European season in our view equalled El Gran Senor’s brilliant display in the General Accident 2,000 Guineas. His clear-cut victory over the finest field assembled for the race since Brigadier Gerard’s year marked El Gran Senor unmistakably as a colt superior to the general run of Classic winners.”

Coincidentally, Brigadier Gerard is another of the elite performers in Pioneerof The Nile’s pedigree. He appears in the fourth generation, alongside stallions of the calibre of Mr Prospector, Northern Dancer, In Reality and Bold Ruler (an eight-time champion sire whose descendants dominated the Kentucky Derby during the 1970s).

The next generation also contains a few freakish performers, including three earners of the American Horse of the Year title. One, Dr Fager, won 18 of his 22 starts; the second, Buckpasser, retired as a winner of 25 of his 31 starts; and the third, Native Dancer, won 21 out of 22. Ribot – earner of a Timeform rating of 142 – is also in the fifth generation, as are Nasrullah, a five-time champion sire in the US, and the dual champion sire Princequillo.

The charismatic Brigadier
The name which interests me here is Brigadier Gerard, who thoroughly merited his superstar status. This heroic performer could almost be described as the equine equivalent of Errol Flynn. Blessed with matinee-idol good looks, Brigadier Gerard had all the charisma and swagger of the swashbuckling Flynn. His connections were also fearless in their approach to the wide range of distances and ground conditions they asked their champion to tackle. There was no Gleneagles-type caution for ‘The Brigadier’. He twice tackled heavy ground at three, even though he had come close to losing his unbeaten record on the first occasion, and he had to fight on the second occasion, too.

While Brigadier Gerard didn’t come close to reproducing his brilliance as a stallion, he isn’t given the credit he merits

While Brigadier Gerard didn’t come close to reproducing his brilliance as a stallion, he isn’t given the credit he merits. In these days of mega-books, it is hard to imagine that he was allowed only 32 mares in his first season in 1973 before progressing to a maximum of 44 mares in subsequent seasons. Even though he was used so sparingly, his fertility failed at 15, leaving just 329 foals. His 29 black-type winners equated to 9% and his 15 Group winners work out to nearly 5% – a highly respectable tally. Among his best winners were Light Cavalry (St Leger) and Vayrann (Champion Stakes).

Brigadier Gerard’s name appears in Pioneerof The Nile’s pedigree via his Prix Thomas Bryon-winning son General, who is responsible for Pioneerof The Nile’s broodmare sire Lord At War. A champion miler in Argentina, Lord At War also won the Santa Anita Handicap and compiled some impressive statistics as a stallion, with 11% black-type winners. He is also the broodmare sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass, and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem.