Horse racing rarely goes according to script, but American Pharoah looks to be bucking that trend.
In his first start since becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, the 3-year-old colt won the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational with ease. His opponents were overmatched on paper, and they were overmatched on the track.
But just because American Pharoah was sent off as the overwhelming favorite, that doesn't mean he couldn't lose. Anyone who has followed the sport for any amount of time knows stranger things have happened. Horses have off days, just like humans.
Owner Ahmed Zayat even said before the race he was more nervous about the Haskell than he was the Belmont.
That might sound crazy, but it makes a lot of sense. Immediately after American Pharoah's victory, trainer Bob Baffert explained, "We wanted him to run well. The last thing we want to do is embarrass the horse. It's a lot of pressure."
Many have questioned why American Pharoah is still running at all, and the answer from his connections is simple -- it is what he loves to do. Plus, it is the sport of horse racing, not horse breeding. The North American breeding sheds are closed for the year, and American Pharoah would be doing a whole lot of nothing if he were retired.
Many also pose questions of safety, but horses can get hurt just as easily in a paddock as they can on a racetrack. That doesn't mean all eyes are not on American Pharoah, making sure he remains at his peak.
"The horse loves to run," Baffert said in the days leading up to the Haskell. "He loves to train. He enjoys it. That's why we run him. We're not doing it for his reputation. He's done a lot. If he's not training like he usually does, then he won't run. So that's why every race it's one race at a time. There's no guarantee where he's going to run next because he has to tell me, 'Hey, I'm ready. I'm sitting on gold.' As long as he's sitting on gold, he'll run."
He was clearly sitting on gold at the Haskell. Although the chart officially says American Pharoah won by 2¼ lengths, anyone watching will agree he could have won by as much as jockey Victor Espinoza wanted. Instead, his regular rider eased up at the end, saving something in the tank for the rest of the year.
At this point, running American Pharoah against his own generation is almost unfair. If there were a mercy rule in horse racing, the officials would have to call it. The horse has won eight of his nine starts, only losing the very first time he ran, and seven of those victories have come in Grade 1 races. Ironically, the Kentucky Derby was probably the "worst" race he ran during this winning streak, and that's just because he looked like he actually had to try a little bit.
The only thing really left to see is what American Pharoah can do against older horses. It does not appear it will be much of a challenge though, as the older horse division this year is not exceptionally strong. Champions Shared Belief and California Chrome are both on the sidelines, leaving Honor Code and Noble Bird as American Pharoah's only true challengers, unless the lovely mare Beholder decides to take on the boys.
In the end, every race American Pharoah runs between now and the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup Classic, which is scheduled to be his final start, is a gift to horse racing and its fans. It is also a gift to the tracks that American Pharoah visits.
On Sunday, Monmouth Park had 60,983 racegoers in attendance, making it the largest crowd in the track's 145-year history. To help put that in perspective, when the track held the Breeders' Cup in 2007, 41,781 people showed up to watch Curlin win the Breeders' Cup Classic. Granted, to say the weather was bad that day is an understatement.
For all the naysayers who think popular runners only bring in horse lovers and not bettors, the track also posted an all-sources handle of $20 million, which is a non-Breeders' Cup record. The Haskell alone brought in a record $6.54 million, shattering the mark of $4.4 million bet on the 2010 edition.
To anyone who questioned why the track bumped the purse of the race from $1 million to $1.75 million, that is your answer. American Pharoah brings in people, betting dollars and a great deal of mainstream exposure.
That's a pretty great trifecta for the sport.
"What I saw was amazing," Baffert said after the Haskell. "I watched like a fan today. 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 from God."
Maybe that is the best any of us can do between now and when American Pharoah races for the final time -- watch like a fan. After all, we have years to debate his place in history and only a few months left to actually enjoy watching him do what he does best: run.