08/02/2015 5:39PM

American Pharoah thrills in dominant Haskell victory

Barbara D. Livingston
American Pharoah wins the Haskell Invitational by 2 1/4 lengths Sunday at Monmouth Park.

OCEANPORT, N.J. – Is it possible for a horse to win the Triple Crown and keep getting better? It certainly looked that way Sunday at Monmouth Park as American Pharoah, in his first start since becoming the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner two months ago, embarrassed a field of accomplished stakes horses with an overpowering victory in the Grade 1, $1.75 million Haskell Invitational.

American Pharoah ($2.20) officially won by 2 1/4 lengths, but the margin could have been a lot more as he was up by five and drawing away with a furlong to go before jockey Victor Espinoza brought him to a common canter in the final 150 yards as the record crowd of 60,983 roared.

“He ran like a champ,” Espinoza said. “The others can’t keep up with the high speed he has. Today, turning for home, the others were struggling. He has having fun. Me too. We both were having fun.”

Keen Ice rallied for second, three lengths in front of Upstart. Competitive Edge, the early pacesetter, faded to fourth and was followed in order by Top Clearance, Dontbetwithbruno, and Mr. Jordan. Nonna’s Boy was scratched.

American Pharoah completed 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:47.95. He was lapped on Competitive Edge through fractions of 23.22 seconds for the opening quarter, 46.14 for a half, and 1:09.60 for six furlongs before surging aggressively to the lead with three furlongs to go. He passed the mile mark in 1:34.44 as Espinoza began to downshift.

American Pharoah continued the remarkable Haskell record of trainer Bob Baffert, who now has won the race a record eight times, including five of the last six.

Though based in California, American Pharoah has raced at five tracks outside that state this year, but he adapts wherever he goes. He was becalmed in the paddock, where actor Bill Murray gave the command for riders up by saying, “Gentlemen, we’re burning daylight. Riders up!”

As the field came on the track, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” played over the loudspeakers, a Haskell tradition. The only horse who seemed startled by the crowd’s singing and cheering was Keen Ice. For American Pharoah, it was business as usual.

Baffert had continued his own Haskell Day tradition by heading to nearby Max’s Hot Dogs for lunch earlier in the day. As post time neared, though, he said his nerves got to him.

“I was feeling that Max’s Hot Dog,” Baffert said.

American Pharoah looked a winner every step of the way. He looked as if he could take Competitive Edge any time he wanted.

“What can you do? The other horse is just too good,” said Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Competitive Edge.

As the field came through the stretch, Baffert said he initially was worried Espinoza had taken too much of a hold before the wire.

“Look back, dude,” he said, watching a replay.

After the race, Espinoza, as he did at the Belmont Stakes, took American Pharoah up the stretch so fans could get another look at him before heading to the winner’s circle.

The trophy presentation included New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was vociferously booed by the crowd when introduced.

Those boos turned to cheers immediately when Ahmed Zayat, the owner and breeder of American Pharoah, was presented with the Haskell trophy and held it over his head.

“I’m extremely proud and humbled,” Zayat said. “It’s a privilege. “This is a superstar. He’s touched everybody’s heart.”

By then, all the anxiousness of the American Pharoah camp had turned to joy and relief.

“I didn’t want to let the crowd down,” Baffert said. “There was pressure. I’d never been in this situation [running a Triple Crown winner]. The last thing I wanted to do was embarrass the horse.”

As Baffert spoke afterward to NBC Sports, he began to choke up.“This horse, he just keeps bringing it,” he said as his voice caught. “I get emotional. He’s just a great horse.”

American Pharoah now has won eight straight races since losing his debut exactly 51 weeks ago. He now has won seven Grade 1 races, including five straight this year – the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Haskell.

As to where he’ll go next, Zayat said he had “no clue,” though at a post-race press conference, Baffert said he would prefer to keep American Pharoah against 3-year-olds for now. If that is the case, the obvious options are the Travers later this month and the Pennsylvania Derby next month.

American Pharoah will return to Del Mar on Monday before Zayat, his son, Justin – the stable’s racing manager – and Baffert decide where to go next. The Travers is at the top of the Zayats’s wish list, but both the Zayats and Baffert have repeatedly said, “The horse comes first,” and they repeated that mantra Sunday.

“When I get home, I’m sure Del Mar will put a lot of pressure on us, too,” Baffert said, referring to the Pacific Classic, which is in 20 days and against older runners.

“We’ll get him home first, see how he bounces out of it,” Baffert said. “We’ll just play it race by race.”

Baffert is cognizant of American Pharoah’s place in history. He wants him to continue to shine.

“As long as he’s still at the top level, I’ll lead him up there,” Baffert said. “As long as he’s at the top of his game, that’s my main concern. We have something really special We owe it to him.”

– additional reporting by David Grening