For the first time in decades, there is a horse in active training who can claim the title of Triple Crown champion. American Pharoah will make his first start since the June 6 Belmont Stakes in Sunday's Haskell Invitational, and there will be plenty of eyes on him when he does.
Considering no one would have blinked had the horse been walked out of the Belmont winner's circle and put on a van to Kentucky, each race he runs the rest of the year is going to draw attention.
In theory, American Pharoah actually does have something left to prove before he joins the stallion ranks. Namely, can he beat older horses? However, in the real world, the Triple Crown is the be-all, end-all goal for a racehorse. His legacy is set whether he runs again or not, and he will breed a full book of mares next year. All we can do is enjoy every race he runs between now and then.
The Haskell, which is limited to 3-year-olds, is a smart choice for American Pharoah's return to the racetrack. It is a Grade 1 race, well-respected, and carries a purse of $1 million. It is also a popular race for horses who found success during the Triple Crown.
Oh, and American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, has won it a record seven times.
American Pharoah has no real contemporaries to compare him to, but since 2000, eight other horses have won two legs of the Triple Crown. Of those eight, four made their next start in the Haskell, and three won the race. Two of them, Point Given (2001) and War Emblem (2002), were also trained by Baffert.
The other two were Big Brown (2008), who won the Haskell as well, and Funny Cide (2003), who ran third behind fellow Grade 1 winners Peace Rules and Sky Mesa. The only recent Triple Crown star to continue racing beyond the Belmont but not run in the Haskell was California Chrome, who was entered in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby last year instead. He ran sixth.
Since 2000, all five horses who won two legs of the Triple Crown and continued racing went on to win at least one more Grade 1 contest.
Should American Pharoah successfully make it to the starting gate Sunday, his career will have already lasted longer than Smarty Jones (2004), Afleet Alex (2005) and I'll Have Another (2012), who never ran beyond the Triple Crown. Of course in I'll Have Another's case, he was infamously retired before the Belmont, not after it.
While the rest of American Pharoah's 2015 campaign remains in flux, his camp announced the Breeders' Cup Classic at the end of October is slated to be his final start. That means of the nine horses in the past 15 years to win at least two legs of the Triple Crown, only two will have been raced beyond their 3-year-old season: Funny Cide and California Chrome.
There is an easy explanation for this: Funny Cide is a gelding, so there was no lucrative stud deal waiting in the wings, and California Chrome stayed healthy and has a blue-collar pedigree. The others had nagging injuries or powerful pedigrees or both, which equated to retirement.
Of the past three Triple Crown winners preceding Pharoah, Secretariat was retired at 3, while both Affirmed and Seattle Slew returned to the track as 4-year-olds. However, in all fairness to Secretariat -- while he was retired at the end of 1973, he did run six more times after the Belmont, including in the Arlington Invitational Stakes the same month he won the Triple Crown. Of course, as time would show, ironically Secretariat was arguably the least successful of the three in the breeding shed.
History says American Pharoah should do well for the rest of his career. He was the best this past spring, and given the state of the older horse division at the moment, there is no reason to think he won't easily be the best for the remainder of 2015.
While it would be wonderful to see him run as a 4-year-old, getting to see American Pharoah run again at all is a sporting gesture, and one that hopefully pays off for his connections.