Pharoah ushers in Grand Slam era

June, 7, 2015
06/07/15
9:24
PM ET

ELMONT, N.Y. -- It took 37 years for him to come around, but Thoroughbred racing finally has a equine superstar so brilliant that he not only swept the Triple Crown for the first time in more than three decades -- he did it easily.

Now comes the hard part.

While a Triple Crown sweep was billed as a mission worthy of Sisyphus prior to American Pharoah's 5½-length romp in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, what awaits the sport's supremely celebrated 12th Triple Crown winner could be a task even more herculean than merely sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a five-week span.

Say hello, racing fans, to the Grand Slam.

If all goes well and American Pharoah continues to race through the fall -- and those are huge if's -- Zayat Stables' charismatic champion will end his career on Oct. 31 in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland, where something new and unprecedented in a centuries-old sport could very well happen.

American Pharoah meets his fans after winning the Triple Crown.AP Photo/Seth WenigFans in Saratoga await the Haskell to see if American Pharoah will be visiting their historic town.
"It would be tremendously exciting to have American Pharoah attempt to become the first 3-year-old to complete the Grand Slam of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic by facing the best horses in the world at Keeneland," said Jim Gluckson, who handles media relations for the Breeders' Cup.

It's no real surprise that the Grand Slam would be a unique feat since the Breeders' Cup was born in 1984, some six years after Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown champion in 1978.

Yet beating older horses from the United States and all corners of the globe at Keeneland is not the only facet of this challenge that makes it so daunting. Keeping American Pharoah sound and healthy until the fall and keeping the hands of his breeding farm, Coolmore America's Ashford Stud, off him add to its degree of difficulty.

While Coolmore recently purchased the breeding rights to American Pharoah for around a reported $20 million, it is believed that a Triple Crown sweep has boosted his value to about double that price through incentives included in the deal.

Given the monumental costs of insuring such a valuable racehorse and the fear of what a loss would do to American Pharoah's value in the eyes of the breeding industry, there has been some speculation that his coronation in the 147th Belmont Stakes might be American Pharoah's dazzling farewell to the sport.

Less than 24 hours after the sweep, though, his connections reaffirmed they are "committed" to continue racing American Pharoah throughout the year.

"It's a huge honor and privilege, and we owe it to the sport to do the right thing," owner Ahmed Zayat said on Sunday. "Money plays an important factor in this game. I have already sold his breeding rights, but it is my genuine desire as a fan, as someone who loves horses, to race him for as long as I possibly could. We have said that we are committed to racing him at least until he finishes his 3-year-old season."

Zayat reiterated that the decision on when and where to race American Pharoah next will be dictated by the reports he gets from Hall of Fame -- and now Triple Crown -- trainer Bob Baffert on the homebred colt's physical condition.

"I want the fans to enjoy something and I will leave it up to Bob to make plans through the career-ending [race]. We're not thinking here at all about value or money or anything like that. When the horse is ready we're not going to be scared of running and losing or not losing and what it will do to his value. What it's about now is the fans and that he belongs to history. Myself and my family take this responsibility extremely seriously and I hope we will be worthy. With Bob, the horse comes first, and with him they are usually ready to perform. We owe it to the sport to campaign him properly and as often as we possibly can."

When asked about possible targets for American Pharoah's next race, Baffert started with two obvious choices, the $1 million, Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 2 or the $600,000, Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Aug. 1, the traditional stepping stone to the $1.25 million, Grade 1 Travers on Aug. 29.

"If this horse gets beat," Baffert said. "Jill [Baffert's wife] will never forgive me for it, so he'll be ready."

The Haskell would seem the favorite in that matchup as Baffert already owns a record seven victories in the Grade 1 test at the Jersey Shore. One of those wins came courtesy of Zayat's Paynter (in 2012) and the 52-year-old businessman said at the Belmont Stakes post-position draw that he would "love to win the Haskell again."

The Zayat family also resides in New Jersey, giving the Haskell hometown appeal. "The Haskell is known as The Bob Baffert Invitational, so knowing Bob that will be a first target, though Saratoga is such a great track," said Ahmed Zayat's son, Justin, the racing manager for Zayat Stables. "I'm [a] Jersey Boy, though. I'm from New Jersey and it would be great to win the Haskell. Who knows? The Travers is four weeks after the Haskell, so maybe he'll go there, too.

"We will let the horse tells us what to do, though he came back from the Belmont filled with so much energy," he added. "We'll give him some rest and relaxation and decide what to do. He's earned it."

Monmouth Park is also well-known for offering purse enhancements and appearance fees in order to attract stars to the Haskell, which the New York Racing Association may be reluctant to do.

"We'd have to look at that," NYRA President and CEO Chris Kay said about the possibilities of boosting purses to lure American Pharoah to Saratoga. "We'll investigate all options. We'd love to have him in the Jim Dandy and the Travers. The Travers, though, has such a great tradition I think it can stand by itself [without enhancements]."

The wild card in the mix due to the phenomenal response to American Pharoah's sweep is that tracks will shift or create stakes to capitalize on the standing-room-only crowds the Triple Crown winner will attract.

Back in 1973, after Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought, his first race after his 31-length romp in the Belmont came at Arlington Park in a race specially created for him.

"There's been nothing yet but I'm sure now that it has happened there will be a lot of people calling us," Justin Zayat said. "Everybody wants American Pharoah to come to their town and track. We'll weigh our options and talk to Bob and pick out the best race for him.

"He's the people's horse and we don't want to take that away from anyone. We need to have people come to the track, and he's the horse that can do that. It's what the sports needs and needs to capitalize on. This is the time to get new owners, new trainers, new fans. It's when people get a bug and I hope one day they can get the same feeling I got on Saturday."

If, and there's that word again, Thoroughbred racing's incredible ride with American Pharoah extends into the fall, the setting for his final race is very much a no-brainer. "The Breeders' Cup at Keeneland would be the ultimate way to end American Pharoah's career," Justin Zayat said. "To win the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup Classic would be the absolute ultimate."

Actually, it could be something else. It just might be the dawn of a new quest in racing. The Grand Slam era has officially begun.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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