CRAWFORD | His return at hand, American Pharoah thriving in post - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | His return at hand, American Pharoah thriving in post-Triple Crown work

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American Pharoah on the track at Del Mar Race Course in California. (AP image via Benoit Photo) American Pharoah on the track at Del Mar Race Course in California. (AP image via Benoit Photo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — When we last saw American Pharoah in these parts, he had passed from mere racehorse to historic figure. The last time they paraded him at Churchill Downs, nearly 30,000 people showed up to catch a glimpse, to celebrate his Triple Crown accomplishment.

There were hundreds in the Churchill barn area every day after he won the Belmont. One day somebody tried to sneak a tour bus in. When they put him on the van to fly to California, they had to get behind him to push him up the ramp. It was about the only time during the whole Triple Crown experience that he wasn’t in perfect step with what trainer Bob Baffert and his team wanted.

He got off the plane in California and actress Julia Roberts came to visit him, with her children. He was the toast of Hollywood. It was a good time.

Now think about this, as American Pharoah prepares to canter back into the national spotlight with Sunday's run in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey: The only time the talented 3-year-old began to tire was during that time when the training tapered off and the public duty ramped up.

“He lost weight during the time that we were bringing him out and showing him to everybody,” Baffert said Tuesday. “He was eating a lot of carrots. He was tired. That’s why when we go to Monmouth Park, he’ll be shut off to that. Nobody will be able to come see him. He just needs the rest. He enjoys people, but you could tell it was getting to him a little bit. Now he’s back to work.”

And at work, it seems, is when Pharoah is at his best. Trainers talk about horses “loving” to run and it’s easy to dismiss it. How do they know what an animal loves, or even if an animal can love something? Without question, we humans are guilty of assigning whatever emotions we want to animals that are important to us. What do we know?

CRAWFORD | Free e-book commemorates American Pharoah's Triple Crown run

Except that when you see how a horse acts when he’s led to the track, you see him stand statue still when he steps onto the racing surface. You see him unfurl his stride and prick his ears. Not all of them love it. For some it is work. You watch some horses run and you can see them labor.

You watch this one run, and you see none of the effort. You see power and poise, you see graceful motion.

Through the most grueling five weeks any modern thoroughbred will face, this colt thrived. It was only when he stopped that he languished.

Maybe that’s why, with his return to racing off a long layoff coming, Baffert has worked him three times in 10 days, including a 1:11 work for six furlongs on July 23. It was the fastest at Del Mar that day for the distance — by three seconds.

“I’ve had a lot of nice horses and good horses,” Baffert said. “The definition of great is not when you say it, it’s when everybody in the world tells you that you have a great horse. I think Pharoah is different from any horse I’ve ever trained. I’ve had some really good horses, but he’s the one who has been able to best sustain his form for a long period of time. I’ve had some really good horses who couldn’t sustain it. He has seemed to hold it, and that’s what makes him great. He keeps getting stronger. He’s just a really special horse. I don’t like to use the word ‘superhorse,’ because they can all be beat. Cigar was beat. Any of them can be beat. But as long as he’s on my watch, I’m not going to lead him up there unless he’s doing really well.”

There is a responsibility involved in this for Baffert and American Pharaoh’s owner, Ahmed Zayat. And they’re fully aware of it. Call it the stewardship of the Crown.

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners before him, seven won their next start after accomplishing the feat. Three lost their next race out, and one, Count Fleet, never raced after his Belmont win.

Three weeks after winning the Triple Crown, the great Seattle Slew ran fourth to three horses you won’t remember in the Swaps at Hollywood Park — then went to a new trainer. Affirmed backed up his Triple Crown win with back-to-back wins in the Grade 3 Jim Dandy and Grade 1 Travers before losing to Seattle Slew. Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths, then beat a four-horse field at Arlington Park before losing to a horse named Onion in the Grade 2 Whitney Handicap.

So Baffert’s point should be well-taken. Even a so-called super horse can lose. And his goal is that what few races American Pharoah might have left is to put the colt in a position to perform his best, win or lose.

“A lot of people don’t understand,” Baffert said. “As long as he’s healthy, the horse loves to run, loves to train. That’s why we run him. As long as he shows me he’s at that level, the minute I don’t see that, we’ll say, ‘You know what, if he’s not training like he usually does, he won’t run.’ That’s why it’s one race at a time. There’s no guarantee where he will run next. The horse has to tell me, ‘Hey, I’m ready. I’m sitting on go.’ As long as he’s sitting on go, he’ll run.”

Baffert has had some time to digest all that happened with his colt during the Triple Crown run. He’s had some time to think about the accomplishment, and where American Pharoah ranks among the greats of the sport, or even the greats of his generation. But the more he thinks about it, the further he retreats from a conclusion.

“With Secretariat, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to, you know the Belmont, he ran with the same horses in all the races, that race, what he did that day, I don’t think we’ll ever see something like that again,” Baffert said. “That was incredible. Times have changed. I don’t see horses winning by margins like that. . . . I would never try to compare him with Secretariat or a Seattle Slew. He’s just American Pharoah. I think you can only compare him with his own group. He’s Pharoah.”

At the same time, Baffert knows this: He’s never trained a better horse.

“I’ve never had a horse like this,” he said. “He’s pretty special to me. I never had a horse that moved like him, with so much speed, but who enjoys it so much. . . . I just think I owe it to the horse to have him at peak performance for the race. I want to make sure he’s ready.”

So far, every indication is that he is. He’ll fly to New Jersey Wednesday, then spend a couple of quiet days before going back to work on some more history.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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