Bob Baffert: little downside to racing American Pharoah again

Bob Baffert doesn't have a master plan to turn American Pharoah into a mythical "superhorse". AP Photo/Seth Wenig

The pre-Belmont Stakes question has given way to the post-Triple Crown query, the two intersecting -- where else? -- at the corner of Cheech and Chong.

The comedic pair -- known more for their love of cannabis than colts -- ran into Bob Baffert at an airport recently, and like so many other strangers and friends, delightedly told Baffert they had watched his horse, American Pharoah, win the Triple Crown two months ago.

That takes care of the pre-Belmont Stakes question. If Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong watched, then yes, horse racing got a mainstream fan boost from American Pharoah's historical run.

But then Cheech pulled Baffert aside, tugging the trainer into the horse's next chapter with a question.

"Why,'' Marin wanted to know, "are you running him again?"

Fair question, Cheech.

America loves a winner, and right now, American Pharoah is the poster horse for success. On June 6, when he crossed the Belmont finish line five-and-a-half lengths ahead of Frosted, he became the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, capturing a title that had become so elusive, plenty of smart horsemen had begun to think it was impossible to reach.

Had the horse dropped the mic right there on the Belmont track (figuratively, of course, because hooves are not made for mic-holding) and headed out to a stud farm, he might have been the most admired male hero athlete of all time. Earn your place in history and retire to breed for the rest of your life? Seriously, that's the dictionary definition of a stud.

Instead, American Pharoah will step into the starting gate on Sunday in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park, a quaint little track by the Jersey Shore. Barring something cataclysmic there, he will likely race again at least twice more. Maybe at the Travers Stakes in Saratoga, the Pacific Classic in California, or possibly at the Pennsylvania Derby; almost assuredly at the Breeder's Cup in Kentucky to end his career.

So, back to Cheech: Why?

"A lot of people don't understand, so long as he's healthy, he loves to run, and he loves to train and that's why we run him,'' Baffert said.

But at what risk?

Baffert sees little, but he and the American Pharoah folks are in a funny spot. Horse racing needs Pharoah to keep running. The sport has so much to gain with every step he takes -- some 30,000 saluted him when he paraded around Churchill Downs a week after winning the Triple Crown, and more than 50,000 are expected to cram into Monmouth Park on Sunday.

The horse is really the only one with anything to lose.

Financially, there's practically no risk. Owner Ahmed Zayat already has sold American Pharoah's breeding rights to Coolmore. Understandably, the breeding organization is anxious to start mating American Pharoah, but a loss at the Haskell (not likely, considering the field) or anywhere else won't change the cha-ching on the horse's stud fee much, if at all.

The risk -- and maybe that's too strong a word -- would be to the horse's reputation.

Baffert hates the term "superhorse" and is equally loathe to compare one animal to the next. Measuring American Pharoah against Secretariat, Seattle Slew and so on is, to Baffert, like trying to compare LeBron James to Bill Russell or Michael Jordan or Oscar Robertson. It's an impossible generational task, skewed by the changes in sport and technology.

"I think the definition of great is not when you say it, but when everyone else in the world tells you that you have a great horse,'' Baffert said.

That is exactly what folks are saying. American Pharoah isn't just a Triple Crown winner, he's a Triple Crown winner in an era when horses aren't bred to run a Triple Crown schedule. His greatness right now is secure.

He is Brett Favre, before Favre tried to stretch his career too long to Minnesota. He is Jordan, before the Washington Wizards folly. He is Tiger Woods, before Woods crashed into that fire hydrant.

If Pharoah loses between now and his retirement, though, does he become the "after"?

Today, the next great thing is just one social media post away, our attention spans lasting barely longer than it takes to consume a 140-character tweet.

LeBron James was the king, until Steph Curry dethroned him. Roger Federer was perhaps the greatest ever, until ...

Fairy tales aren't supposed to end in losses; the horse is supposed to ride off into the Elmont, New York, sunset and into the bright skies of a quiet meadow in Versailles, Kentucky.

So, again, why? "He's already done enough,'' Cheech told Baffert.

The horse trainer sees things through a different prism, though. The great ones, he knows, almost always lose.

In his second race after winning the Triple Crown, Secretariat lost to Onion; Affirmed followed his triumph with a loss to Alydar on a disqualification at the Travers; J.O. Tobin knocked off Seattle Slew in Slew's next start after the Triple Crown.

Only Citation followed a Crown-clinching win at Belmont by winning every other race that season, but even that great champion went 19-1 through the end of his three-year-old season. He just got the loss out of the way early, falling to a horse named, of all things, Saggy, in the Chesapeake Trial Stakes in early 1948.

And so as Baffert plots American Pharoah's future schedule, he feels no pressure to preserve any sort of mythical status. To Baffert, "super" is in the eye of the beholder.

"I felt more pressure with the Kentucky Derby,'' he said. "I couldn't let that race get away. Now I'm just enjoying it. I would never try to compare him with Secretariat, or Seattle Slew. He's American Pharoah. You can only compare him with his group. He's the best three year old. ''

So instead of plotting Pharoah's future by choosing the easiest course, or the shortest, Baffert will let the horse dictate his own route. Baffert fielded multiple questions on a recent conference call about the horse's next race after Haskell, but he won't commit. He's not being coy. He simply doesn't know how the horse will respond after Sunday's race.

"We just assess it one race at a time,'' Baffert said. "I'd like to run him every week, if I could. I'd like to hit them all, but Pharoah will let us know what he's ready to do.''

Of course, the flip side on all of this is the endless hope, the "ifs": if the horse is able to race through October, as hoped; more importantly, if he wins out.

Among the possibilities for his next races, the Pennsylvania Derby seems the likeliest candidate, mostly by process of elimination. Saratoga would be the choice of many for both its prestige and history, but it also has earned a reputation as the graveyard of champions. Just one horse has won both the Triple Crown and the Travers, and that was Whirlaway. In 1941.

Baffert hasn't fared well there, either, with just one winner in five races.

The Pacific Classic comes up the quickest, on Aug. 22, and probably a little more quickly than is ideal.

That leaves the Pennsylvania Derby. It is neither historic nor hoity-toity. It is fed by the dollars dropped in the slots of the neighboring Parx Casino, stationed at a junction of major thoroughfares (Interstate 95, Route 1 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike), not near a field of thoroughbreds.

But it offers a big payout to both owner and trainer, and with a Sept. 19 date, sets up nicely for the horse to space his races leading up to the Breeder's Cup Classic on Oct. 30 and 31.

And getting to that finish line really is the ultimate goal. The Breeder's Cup is the perfect race to go out on because it is the last of the season and, what's more, it offers American Pharoah a chance to do something that has never before been accomplished.

There has never been a "Grand Slam" winner in horse racing, because until now, no horse has had a shot. The first Breeder's Cup wasn't run until 1984, six years after Affirmed won the last Triple Crown before Pharoah's.

Even a short-term memory afflicted sports world would have to appreciate what winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and Breeder's Cup Classic would mean for American Pharoah's reputation.

Even, perhaps, Cheech Marin would understand.