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Pharoah set for victory lap

Bob Baffert thinks it's a horse race, and in his position, as the detail-obsessed trainer-cum-custodian of the most celebrated racehorse in the nation, that's exactly what he has to think. But from here, Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park looks more like a victory lap, and after his sweep of the Triple Crown, that's exactly what American Pharoah deserves. Or perhaps it'll be more of a victory parade, like the recent spectacle in Oakland, California, celebrating the Golden State Warriors' NBA title. In either case, even though Baffert will never buy into the idea, the Haskell will probably be more of a cultural event than a horse race, and at this point that seems richly appropriate.

Five or maybe six modestly accomplished rivals will line up against the Triple Crown winner, but who cares if there's little competition? American Pharoah could take on a quartet of whippets and still attract a throng.

Bob Kulina, Monmouth Park's president, recently compared American Pharoah to Michael Jordan. I made the same comparison myself a few months ago, pointing out that American Pharoah moves so gracefully and effortlessly and spends so much time in the air that he's very like the great basketball player. The comparison, though, has accumulated meaning, and this was what Kulina had in mind: American Pharoah, like Jordan, has transcended the sport.

In the 1990s, when the Chicago Bulls won six NBA titles and Jordan four MVP awards, he became so renown that nearly everybody, not just basketball fans, wished to witness his greatness. Opponents became irrelevant. And in horse racing, only a Triple Crown winner can approach such widespread, sport-surpassing popularity. In recent years, Cigar, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta dazzled and dominated on the racetrack until they became celebrities, but they lacked the cachet of the Triple Crown. But American Pharoah has it, in addition to superlative talent and inherent charisma.

And so Monmouth will be host to a "Pharoah Phan Phestival" starting Friday. There will be cap giveaways, a fashion show and a golf tournament. Monmouth expects at least 50,000 people to come out to toast the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, and -- if the weather's accommodating -- perhaps a record will fall. (A record crowd of 53,638 fans turned out in 2003 to see Funny Cide, who finished third, take on Peace Rules and Sky Mesa in the Haskell.)

But Baffert seemed oblivious to the celebratory nature of this sojourn to New Jersey when he said Tuesday he has prepared the champion for "a tough race." But that, too, might be something to celebrate. Back in 1977, after Seattle Slew completed his sweep of the Triple Crown, his trainer, Billy Turner, pulled off the colt's shoes and intended to turn him out, give him a rest. But the owners had different plans. And so just three weeks after the Belmont, Seattle Slew traveled to California to run in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. The Swaps was supposed to be a lucrative and celebratory victory lap, too. But Seattle Slew finished fourth, beaten by 16 lengths.

That won't happen Sunday in New Jersey. American Pharoah will probably join the seven Triple Crown winners who won their very next start after successfully sweeping the famed series. Only Sir Barton (1919), Omaha (1935) and Seattle Slew (1977) lost. Sir Barton led most of the way through the slop at Aqueduct but finished second by three lengths in the Dwyer. Just two weeks after completing his sweep, Omaha finished a distant third in the Brooklyn Handicap to Discovery, who went on to earn champion older horse honors. And Count Fleet never raced again after his 25-length victory at Belmont Park. (Following the Belmont, by the way, the Triple Crown winners combined to win 37 of their 59 starts the rest of the year, with 13 second-place finishes and six thirds.)

The horses preparing to meet American Pharoah are all talented, of course. But their talent has neither the sparkle nor the depth of the champion's. Mr. Jordan, a flashy gray colt who has lost but once, won the recent Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth after stalking a casual pace. Tekton, the early leader of the Pegasus who finished a head back, is also possible for the Haskell. And then there's Competitive Edge, who won the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day after also stalking a moderate pace. He never has raced beyond a mile, and when the pace heated up in the Woody Stephens Stakes on Belmont Stakes Day, he quickly retreated. Having won consecutive races, Top Clearance appears to be improving. Keen Ice and War Story can put in a run through the lane.

But American Pharoah should be able to have his way with this group: He's naturally quick enough to take the lead immediately, should jockey Victor Espinoza again take that approach; and the handsome colt is versatile enough to stalk, as he did in the Kentucky Derby. Post position might determine the strategy, but American Pharoah will determine the outcome.

As if to emphasize how seriously he is taking the Haskell, on Tuesday Baffert sent out American Pharoah for his third workout in 10 days, a half-mile breeze (48.80 seconds) at Del Mar near San Diego. On July 23, the colt worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.00, which was about three full seconds faster than anybody else's work at the distance; just five days earlier, he had worked another bullet, three-quarters in 1:11.40. He has had six workouts since the Belmont.

"I think he's getting stronger," Baffert said Tuesday from Del Mar. "He's maturing. ... If I put him on the plane [to travel to New Jersey for the Haskell], he's 100 percent."

Baffert has won the Haskell seven times, with Point Given, War Emblem, Roman Ruler, Lookin At Lucky, Coil, Paynter and, last year, Bayern. But, the Hall of Fame trainer said, he never has had a horse like American Pharoah.

"He's just a different kind of horse," Baffert said, pointing out that American Pharoah represents the ideal convergence of talent, stamina, consistency and intelligence. "Something hit just perfectly when he was made."

That's why the Haskell will probably be a victory lap, albeit a rather fast one. But Baffert will never think of it that way, and not only because such an approach would contradict his very nature and betray the responsibility he feels so intensely. Baffert also knows a question lingers, in the air, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. It's the question of American Pharoah's legacy. The Haskell could be the ideal place to begin a post-Triple Crown campaign because the challenges will only get tougher.