American Pharoah celebrates greatness with New Jersey party

Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah had the Haskell Invitational well in hand down the homestretch. AP Photo/Mel Evans

OCEANPORT, N.J. -- The quaint little news conference, set up under a grove of trees at the quaint little racetrack within a slight breeze of the Atlantic Ocean, was going along just swimmingly until Bob Baffert took a phone call at the dais.

The trainer of American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, got up and retreated a few steps off to the side. He spoke for a bit, and then seemed to be scrolling through something on his phone before taking another call.

Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah, kept plugging along gamely, answering a few questions. Finally, he could no longer contain himself.

"What's going on?" he asked to no one in particular, his eyes growing wide, before going to chat with Baffert.

The two spoke briefly before Zayat spied the media slowly gathering around and smiled.

"The horse is fine," he said. "The horse is fine. It's just a personnel issue."

He didn't elaborate, but at the risk of sounding callous, no one much cared -- so long as the horse was fine.

Because that's what this is all about now that this horse story has what few others get, and that's a happy ending.

American Pharoah is a hero now, not just a hope, and his easy victory at the Haskell Invitational on Sunday was as much a victory parade as it was a race.

He won by 2¼ lengths ahead of Keen Ice, but he could have won by as much as he wanted, jockey Victor Espinoza easing off the gas on his thoroughbred Maserati before man and animal crossed the finish line.

"I was just trying to move up during the race," said jockey Gabriel Saez, who was on board Dontbetwithbruno. "But American Pharoah just kept getting smaller and smaller."

That is exactly what people came to see. A record crowd of 60,983 filled Monmouth Park, most happy to take advantage of the $6 general admission ticket that got them on the grounds.

They came to glimpse greatness, not so much watch a competition. No one thought the horse was going to lose -- he went off as the 1-to-10 favorite, the lowest the odds can possibly go.

This was a party, albeit Jersey-style. Airplanes were pulling banners overhead, just like they do down the road at the Jersey Shore, and rock star Richie Sambora, the lead guitarist for Bon Jovi, served as the leader of the posse for the rock star horse.

"You guys are the rock stars," Sambora shouted to trainer Bob Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat and Zayat's son, Justin, during the postrace news conference.

Correction, Richie: The horse is the rock star.

This wasn't the Belmont Stakes. There was no 37-year-old hex to break, no Triple Crown to win. And yet, when the horse turned the corner for the homestretch, it was just the same as at Belmont: the roar of the crowd growing more deafening with each stride, somehow gaining strength rather than dying out after the win was secure, just as it did during that Crown-clinching win at Belmont in June.

Throughout the lengthy winner's circle presentation, through endless interviews and announcements, the crowd kept on cheering -- except, that is, when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was introduced and booed as lustily as American Pharoah was cheered -- shouting adoration at the animal for as long as he stood on the track.

Why? Maybe because heroes are so hard to come by these days, at least untainted ones. American Pharoah doesn't have the luxury of being able to speak, and so hoof-in-mouth disease remains a human affliction. He's a beautiful animal who, unlike many of his racehorse counterparts, likes people and loves the attention.

"I watched like a fan today," Baffert said. "I'm looking at this horse like, 'Where did he come from?' I've had some really nice horses, but this horse, what he does is just incredible. He makes me emotional because he's a gift, a gift from God or something."

The difference in who American Pharoah was just two months ago and who the racehorse is now was wildly evident early in the day.

At 4:56 p.m. ET, about an hour before post time, an announcement rang out over the backside, telling horsemen that this was the second and final call for Race 12, the Haskell Invitational.

American Pharoah hadn't even had his pre-race bath yet because, let's be honest, they weren't starting the race without him.

Horse diva? Perhaps, but when you win the first Triple Crown in nearly four decades, you get to be an equine handful.

The last time he got a pre-race bath, he was hidden away from prying eyes. Tucked behind a Belmont barn hard along the Hempstead Turnpike on Long Island, the horse prepped for his shot at history in the quiet, with just his handlers and trainer watching.

This time he bathed before a gaggle of gawkers, a crowd of about 60 people lining the fence, smartphones lifted to snap pictures. Then, as American Pharoah walked around the corner from his temporary home, the Kelly John Breen Barn, to the holding barn, the crowd followed behind him, an equine Rocky gathering the schoolchildren as he made his climactic climb up the museum stairs.

"This is incredible," said one young woman to a friend, as they essentially watched a horse walk.

But incredible in sports doesn't happen so often anymore, at least not without complications.

And American Pharoah is uncomplicated. On the days he's meant to race, he goes out and races -- simply, cleanly and without any issues.

Really, the only ones who can foul this up now are the people, something Baffert is keenly aware of. Before the race, he insisted he felt no added pressure or responsibility to win; afterward he sang a different and more honest tune.

Baffert admitted to feeling so much anxiety as the horses entered the gates he feared his favorite pre-race Max's hot dog snack might make a regurgitated visit.

"There's a lot of pressure," he said. "And it definitely goes through your mind. He got beat in the ESPYS and I was crushed. That was his last loss. "

The goal is to keep it that way between now and October, when the horse hopefully can gallop into the sunset after the Breeder's Cup Classic in Kentucky.

"I just don't want to embarrass the horse," Baffert said.

Which, of course, leads to the inevitable question of what's next? Baffert and Ahmed Zayat had barely settled into their news conference chairs -- oddly stationed in a tree-covered grove that gave the whole thing the feel of an Ole Miss football tailgate -- before the questions came about where they take the horse from here.

Both owner and trainer rode the same line they've preached for weeks: We'll see.

"We have to get him home first and see what we'll do," Baffert said. "I want to do the right thing for American Pharoah."

And, really, that's all that's left to do.