OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) — When the music played about 10 minutes before the start of the Haskell Invitational, there was no way American Pharoah could lose.
As the Triple Crown winner stepped onto the track for first race since sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Monmouth Park's Haskell anthem was blasting away over the sound system, and many in the record crowd of 60,983 were singing along: "... tramps like us, baby we were born to run."
Pharoah fever was in the air, to the tune of Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." Everyone seemed to catch it. Maybe even American Pharoah — despite the earplugs he wears because he's sensitive to sound.
On a perfect summer day at the Jersey Shore track, racing's biggest star delivered an encore performance to remember — a 2 1/4-length victory in the $1.75 million Haskell that was much more dominating than the margin indicates.
"It was pretty easy," winning jockey Victor Espinoza said after American Pharoah raced second until midway around the far turn before seizing the lead and taking control. "For me the key was just coming out of there running."
A slight nudge by Espinoza gave American Pharoah the cue he needed to show off his blazing speed and cruise home without any urging.
"This horse, he just keeps bringing it," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's just a great horse."
For a day, Springsteen was probably happy to let American Pharoah be The Boss.
And now that he's won the first race of the start of the end of his career, here's a look at what's next for Team Pharoah:
After the race, he was led back to the stall he's been staying in at trainer Kelly Breen's barn on the Monmouth Park backstretch. While Baffert jetted back to California on Sunday night, and owner Ahmed Zayat and family were celebrating somewhere in Jersey, the horse was headed back to California on Monday for some rest before he resumes training.
The biggest question is which race will American Pharoah run in next? There's no answer right now, but the options include the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29, the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 19, and the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 26.
"No clue," Zayat said when asked about his colt's next start.
Actually, there are. Baffert says he's not keen on running against older horses. Of the three options, only the Awesome Again is open to 3 year-olds and up. The other two are for 3-year-olds.
And Zayat's son and racing manager, Justin, has been saying his choice would be the Travers, which announced it would raise its purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million if American Pharoah runs. The Pennsylvania Derby also is likely to offer more money.
"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. There are a lot of options out there. Every time I lead him out there I want to feel good about it."
What we do know is if all goes according to plan, American Pharoah's final race will be the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31. And then, he's headed down the road to the breeding shed at Coolmore's Ashford Stud.
IS HE BEATABLE?
Even Secretariat lost, more than once. American Pharoah has won eight in a row, including seven Grade 1 races. He's beaten all the other top 3-year-olds around — except one. While American Pharoah missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with a minor injury, Texas Red won the race. However, he missed the Triple Crown races with an injury, and on Saturday won the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.
The win has trainer Texas Red's trainer Keith Desormeaux anticipating a showdown, if not in the Travers, certainly the BC Classic.
"Keith's always said it would be nicer to wait until the Breeders' Cup before that matchup (with American Pharoah), but it's inevitable, so why not?" Desormeaux's assistant Julie Clark said Sunday at Saratoga. "He (Desormeaux) had no interest in the Haskell, he didn't want to meet him just yet, but I think his race impressed him and gave him some confidence."
Maybe it's the hot dogs after all. A Baffert tradition leads him to Max's Hot Dogs in Long Branch, New Jersey, before he runs his horses in the Haskell. He was there again before Sunday's race and now he's won eight Haskells — five more than any other trainer. "Today, it was nerve-racking," he said. "I may have not looked nervous but believe me I was. I was feeling that hot dog I had earlier."
Wonder if he took one for the road.
SIZING UP PHAROAH
Gabriel Saez, who finished sixth in the seven-horse field, said all he tried to do was move up during race, "but American Pharoah kept getting smaller and smaller."
Espinoza's take? "He ran like a champ."
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