Pharoah basking at Monmouth

August, 2, 2015
08/02/15
9:22
PM ET

As the victory parade after the $1.75 million William Hill Haskell Invitational headed toward a post-race news conference, a fan shouted out to the smiling, exuberant owner of the star of the day, Ahmed Zayat, "See you at Saratoga ... hopefully."

After American Pharoah returned to the races in a majestic manner befitting a Triple Crown champion, the frenzied celebration throughout Monmouth Park was not just a moment to savor but one to covet and want to see repeated in an even more celebrated environment.

Like racing's oasis at Saratoga -- for the Travers on Aug. 29.

It's a possibility even more delicious than trainer Bob Baffert's favorite chow at Max's Hot Dogs, and it's surely on the menu.

"My preference would be to run [next] at Saratoga," Zayat told ESPN.com.

Zayat's feelings are anything but a guarantee. What will ultimately decide American Pharoah's racing future will be how he comes out of his throttled-down 2¼-length Haskell victory and how he subsequently trains in the next few weeks.

"Mr. Zayat told me we don't run him unless he is 100 percent," Baffert said about racing's first Triple Crown champion in 37 years. "We have to get him home and see how he bounces out of this [before making a decision on his next race]."

But for all the caveats, Zayat's willingness at the moment to rank the Travers above options like the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22 or the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on Sept. 19, creates the spectacular possibility that the grand old Spa could be the stage for not just a blockbuster show but a race as good as any of the Triple Crown races. It would feature the horse that has become a mega rock star in American Pharoah, matched against Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red and Belmont Stakes runner-up Frosted, who were 1-2 Saturday in the Spa's Jim Dandy Stakes, and even Haskell runner-up Keen Ice in a mile-and-a-quarter classic.

There are still many ifs to be answered, but even though Baffert now has eight Haskell wins and just one in the Travers, it should not be taken for granted that the Hall of Fame trainer wants no part of the Spa.

Trainer Bob Baffert, center, owner Ahmed Zayat, right, and his son Justin Zayat, left, celebrate after American Pharoah's runaway victory in Sunday's Haskell.AP Photo/Mel EvansTrainer Bob Baffert, center, owner Ahmed Zayat, right, and Justin Zayat, left, celebrate after American Pharoah's victory in the Haskell.
"We certainly would love to get American Pharoah to the Travers, but we have tremendous respect for Mr. Zayat and Bob Baffert and understand they will do what is best for the horse," said Martin Panza, senior vice president of racing operations for the New York Racing Association. "The horse will tell them what to do.

"American Pharoah was very impressive today [in the Haskell], and we will do everything we can to make it easy for them to bring him here."

NYRA took a step in making it "easy" by boosting the purse of the Travers to $1.6 million, provided American Pharoah runs. Judging by the electric scene at Monmouth on Sunday it will be money well spent if it helps land American Pharoah.

A record crowd of 60,983 turned out at Monmouth to watch the long awaited 12th Triple Crown winner, and from the second American Pharoah stepped into the paddock to the moment he exited the winner's circle there was an electric atmosphere.

The pre-race excitement turned into an even bigger frenzy as American Pharoah toyed with his six rivals. After pressing pace-setting Competitive Edge in second, when the Zayat Stables superstar and jockey Victor Espinoza effortlessly cruised past him to take command, it was a scene right out of American Pharoah's coronation in the Belmont Stakes: a stretch drive with no doubt about the outcome as a deafening roar arose from the stands.

"In some ways I thought it was as loud today as it was at the Belmont," Baffert said. "This horse makes me emotional because he's a gift from God."

The love fans have for the winner of now eight straight races was magnified by the way fans embraced Zayat as he walked past en route to the post-race news conference.

In the winner's circle, Zayat, a New Jersey resident, hoisted the winner's trophy and shouted, "This is for you, New Jersey." Then, as he walked through the grandstand to meet with the media, fans from the Garden State and every other part of the racing world, shouted out their thanks to Zayat, some asking for autographs and photographs.

Zayat was happy to oblige and oblige and oblige some more. Some 20 minutes after the post-race interviews, he was still mingling with American Pharoah's fans and happily signing programs, pictures and even hats.

"I was so nervous today, even more nervous than before the Belmont Stakes," Zayat said, "because I didn't want to disappoint the fans today."

American Pharoah, as he has in every race since a puzzling loss in his career debut, certainly did not let anyone down on Sunday. He simply reminded everyone of how special it was to watch Triple Crown champions like Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat and stoked an even greater passion to see him once again.

Perhaps in the Travers.

Time will tell.

• 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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