07/30/2015 3:50PM

American Pharoah has no rival in terms of popularity

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Fans take photos of American Pharoah during his morning bath at Monmouth Park on Thursday.

It has been 37 years since a horse made his first start since winning the Triple Crown. On Aug. 8, 1978, Affirmed went off at 1-20 in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, two months after famously outdueling Alydar once again to win the Belmont Stakes under teenage riding sensation Steve Cauthen. According to the day’s charts, attendance at Saratoga that day was 21,544.

On Sunday, American Pharoah, racing’s newest Triple Crown winner, is scheduled to start for the first time since he won the Belmont two months ago in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Monmouth officials expect at least 60,000 people to show up, and they have said they will not be surprised if the number hits 80,000.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to compare the popularity of a racehorse in the modern era to the popularity of Affirmed when he embarked on his post-Triple Crown career. There was no Internet in the late 1970s, no social media or live Tweeting. Nearly everyone read newspapers, televisions received four or five channels, and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had not yet transformed the NBA and ushered in the modern era of televised American sports. And Thoroughbred racing had not yet started its long, sustained decline on the popular sporting landscape.

Still, there is no horse in recent memory whose popularity can be even remotely compared with American Pharoah. Not California Chrome, last year’s media darling. Not Funny Cide, who drew the current record attendance of 53,368 at the 2003 Haskell. Not the wondermare Zenyatta, who had an adoring cadre of loyal fans.

“It’s off the charts,” said American Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, who has trained seven winners of the Haskell and some of the more popular horses to run in the last two decades. “He’s way more popular than any horse I’ve ever trained. If I would say, ‘Come see American Pharoah tomorrow,’ and they’d open up the stable area to anyone who wants to come, they’d be lined up all the way outside the backstretch gates.”

Whether American Pharoah’s popularity will turn into measurable, long-term gains for Thoroughbred racing is not easy to predict. Nor will it be easy to quantify, not unless handle figures on American races improve significantly in the next three months.

But the amount of attention being paid to American Pharoah in his run-up to the Haskell is not difficult to measure. On Tuesday, he had his last work at Del Mar, and 400 people reportedly cheered when he crossed the wire. His arrival at Monmouth on Wednesday was broadcast live by the track on Twitter through the micro-blogging site’s new Periscope service. Two local news crews covered his police escort from the airport in Atlantic City to Monmouth – from helicopters.

Monmouth is opening its clubhouse Friday and Saturday from 7 to 8 a.m. so people can watch American Pharoah on the track for his routine gallops. For the Friday race card, attendees will receive a free American Pharoah button and a commemorative magazine produced by Daily Racing Form, and a cup featuring the horse will go on sale for the first time. Monmouth is promoting his scheduled appearance in the paddock to school that day. On Saturday, early-arriving patrons will receive a Baffert jersey, while supplies last.

All that before the horse even runs.

“Other than the Super Bowl [in 2014 at the Meadowlands], I can’t think of a bigger sporting event ever in the state,” said John Heims, the track’s director of media relations. “I’ve been racking my brain and asking anyone else to come up with one, but I can’t, and they can’t either.”

That may be hyperbole, considering the column inches and social-media posts devoted to the New York Giants and New York Jets. Still, Heims said six days before the Haskell that the track has already issued 200 media credentials, nearly the same amount of credentials the track issued for Monmouth’s Breeders’ Cup in 2007.

And then there’s the projection for attendance on Sunday. Unlike Belmont Park, which capped attendance for American Pharoah’s Belmont at 90,000, no one will be turned away for the Haskell, Heims said.

“I wish I could say what we can expect, but I’ve never seen anything like it,” Heims said. “I honestly don’t know.”