OCEANPORT, N.J. — The question had been posed and vigorously debated: Why run? At some point in the 58 days of late spring and summer that separated this year’s historic Belmont Stakes from the Haskell Invitational on Sunday, a referendum had been informally called in which the public and media debated the wisdom of extending American Pharoah’s racing career beyond winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years. After all, Pharoah will be worth millions at stud and could achieve nothing on the racetrack to exceed that which he had already accomplished.
To many, the answer seemed obvious: There was too little upside and too much potential for damage to Pharoah’s legacy—or to Pharoah himself—to keep running races. That opinion gained traction in the week before the Haskell, when the colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said that half of a 1970s comedy team famous for buzzy, weed-themed routines had expressed wonder that Pharoah might race again beyond the Belmont. And suddenly, the opinion of Richard (Cheech) Marin fueled a rising wonder. Why run, indeed?
So the answer came on Sunday in a sound that rose from the floor to the roof of an old racetrack grandstand two miles from the Atlantic Ocean on the New Jersey shore. American Pharoah spoke in his most eloquent tongue and racing fans responded in theirs. The roar was similar in urgency—and little diminished in volume—from the one that carried American Pharoah through the long Belmont homestretch in the early evening of June 6, finally cutting racing loose from the shackles of too many Triple Crown failures. This time, Pharoah ran in the warm sunshine at Monmouth Park, before a record crowd of 60,983, and this time he rolled to victory over runner-up Keen Ice by a 2¼-length margin that could have been much, much greater had jockey Victor Espinoza urged the colt to run even a little bit. Baffert turned away from the track and began hustling from his box above the finish line to the winner’s circle with his wife, Jill, and sons Bode and Tayler, and said, “Did you hear that crowd? Did you hear it?”
This, then, was the simplest response to a very complex question. For much of the last three decades, racing fans and media have bemoaned seeing great racehorses retired too quickly after their best races—even Secretariat ran six times after his epic victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Increasingly, the best 3-year-olds have run scarcely past June. The struggling sport has needed stars, but too often those stars were retired before the paint had dried on their masterpieces in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont. American Pharoah’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, had chosen to keep his champion running, yet had received blowback. His horse answered for him: The colt runs because American Pharoah in full flight breathes life into the sport. Because fans do not cheer for what goes on in the breeding shed. And because greatness does not idle, it runs.
None of this diminishes the unusual pressure on Pharoah’s team. In the weeks immediately following his Belmont victory, he was twice paraded before the public—at Churchill Downs in Kentucky and at Santa Anita in Southern California—and was visited incessantly by well-wishers seeking to lay a hand on the mane of the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978. (Even I fed him carrots.) The experience wore down the horse; he lost weight and missed the routine of training. Racetracks around the country badgered Baffert and Zayat to make their tracks the site for a future Pharoah start. The colt worked five times from June 29 to July 23, and brilliantly, but Baffert fretted nonetheless. He remembered hearing of Secretariat’s loss to Onion in the 1973 Whitney and that memory haunted him.
So Baffert came to New Jersey enthused, but wary and intensely nervous. “I’m more nervous than I was before the Belmont,” he said on Sunday as he plowed though the Monmouth crowd after saddling a frisky American Pharoah for the Haskell. Minutes before post time, a woman asked for a selfie and dozens of fans shoved programs at Baffert to be signed. “I have to get upstairs and watch my horse,” said Baffert, but the Jersey crowd persisted. He arrived at his second-floor box above the finish line, next to the Zayat family, only four minutes before post time.
From the number 4 post position, Espinoza hurried American Pharoah out of the starting gate, much as he had done in his sloppy Preakness romp and in his front-running Belmont victory. “The key was to come out of there running,” Espinoza said after the race. The speedy Competitive Edge, with jockey Mike Smith, rushed up inside Pharoah and took the lead entering the first turn. Espinoza yielded. “I didn’t want to go head-and-head,” he said.
Competitive Edge led Pharoah through the first quarter mile in 23.22 seconds, a half mile in 46.14 seconds and three-quarters in 1:09.60 seconds. These were quick fractions, yet Espinoza was sitting ice cold on Pharoah. “He was on me, and he was on me, loaded,” Smith said. “I tried to shake him, maybe get a couple lengths and take a rest, but I couldn’t do it. I looked over at Victor and he was totally throttled down and he was right on top of me. I mean, I was in a full drive and he was galloping, man. At that point, I was running for second place.”
Espinoza dragged American Pharoah past Competitive Edge to the lead as he passed the three-quarters mark. Entering the stretch, Espinoza moved his hands no more than a man flicking sweat off his fingers and Pharoah shot to a five-length lead approaching the eighth pole. Then Espinoza geared Pharoah down, allowing Keen Ice, who was in a full drive under jockey Kent Desormeaux, to close the final margin without ever threatening. It was truly a stunning performance.
After the race, I found Espinoza taking a photo with two small children near the jockeys’ quarters. I questioned him about when he had stopped asking Pharoah to run in the homestretch. His answer: “I never asked him in the first place.” Then Espinoza paused and said to me, “That was impressive, wasn’t it?” I asked back: “Was that the best he’s ever been, even better than the Belmont?” Espinoza said, “I think it was. I really do.”
In the immediate aftermath of the race, as Baffert scurried from his box, he said, “Did you see Victor? He dialed him back so far I thought he might get him beat!” Then Baffert laughed. “I’m kidding,” he said. “They were going fast, and he was just galloping. Man, he’s a nice horse. Where did he come from?”
(Such is life around a celebrity horse that when Baffert left the post-race press conference to take a phone call and seemed to be talking with some urgency, a rumor roared through the media that Pharoah might have been hurt in the race. He was not. Repeat: He was not. “The horse is fine,” Baffert told me in a cell phone call early in the evening. There had been a minor squabble involving one of the barn employees who works with American Pharoah. “That was the phone call,” said Baffert, who then laughed. “You see what I have to deal with now?”)
The focus in the aftermath of the race turned immediately to where it’s been for much of the last two months: When and where American Pharoah will race again. In describing Espinoza’s ride, Baffert said, “What Victor did, slowing him down like that, it saves the horse.”
Saves him for what? Baffert indicated that he is in no hurry to run against “older” horses (ages 4 and up), which eliminates the Aug. 22 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. The Aug. 29 Travers at Saratoga remains a possibility, as does the Sept. 19 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing. American Pharoah’s final start of 2015 is expected to be in the Breeders’ Cup classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland. Neither Zayat nor Baffert would offer real clues, except to reiterate that the horse’s health will dictate his schedule. “I won’t lead him over [to the starting gate] unless he’s 100%,” Baffert said.
“It was a monster performance,’’ said Smith, who rode the great mare Zenyatta until her retirement in 2010. “Right now, I can’t see anybody out there beating him. He would have to have a horrible day.”
It’s important to note that Zayat made his stallion deal for Pharoah relatively early, before the Kentucky Derby. He told me in July that “no money was left on the table,” but the contract also includes kickers for winning races through the end of the year. So there is money to be made racing. (Zayat and Baffert each received $75,000 for running in the Haskell and $25,000 for each Triple Crown race victory; American Pharoah earned $1.1 million for his win on Sunday.) But it’s impossible to earn as much money at the racetrack as Pharoah will make at stud (with a stallion fee north of $150,000, and as many as 150 matings per year), provided he is fertile and his babies run fast.
The rest of 2015 remains complex and nerve-wracking for Baffert and Zayat. While the crowd at Monmouth seemed smaller than the announced official attendance, the atmosphere at the track was electric, befitting a historically great racehorse. It would be similar anywhere American Pharoah runs, something the likes of which generations of racing fans have never seen. There is no escaping the risk in continuing to run races. Yet on this day, the horse ran on, the legacy was enhanced, the sport was made better.