CRAWFORD | American Pharoah romps in Haskell, and horse racing's party roars on
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For horse racing, American Pharoah’s post-Triple Crown spotlight shines on.
Long viewed as a sport whose day has passed, horse racing is partying right now like its 1979, or ’69. Thanks to a dominant 3-year-old champion, it's in the midst of a mini-revival.
For most of my adult life, horse racing on a national scale has been limited to the first Saturday in May. Otherwise, a race registering a blip on the national radar was about as rare as a telegram arriving at your front door.
But folks, that’s not the case right now. They were lined up before 8 in the morning to get into Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., where on Sunday American Pharoah returned to the racetrack for the first time since winning the Triple Crown.
They packed the grandstand. There was standing room only. And by the time American Pharoah crossed the finish line in the William Hill Haskell Invitational, standing room was all anybody needed.
American Pharoah won by 2 1/4 lengths, but cruised the final furlong. He finished the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.8, just off the track record of 1:47 flat. But as my friend Kelly Anderson said quite eloquently via Twitter, in the final eighth of a mile, American Pharoah, “was jogging and checking Twitter and posting selfies.”
NBC announcer Larry Collmus called it “a rousing return,” and added, “he could’ve won by 20.” Jockey Victor Espinoza put on the brakes late like he’d seen a state trooper on the New Jersey Turnpike.
It was the most impressive performance in the Haskell since Rachel Alexandra ran away from the boys in 2009, but just as impressive was what was going on all around the race.
It was a carnival at Monmouth Park. NBC had a picture-perfect broadcast, reaching back into American Pharoah’s Triple Crown run, this time with time to retell the story with a bit of perspective.
But in between the race broadcast segments were some rare advertising spotlight opportunities for the industry, and it took advantage. Coolmore Stud ran a spot touting itself as the future home of American Pharoah. Churchill Downs. Inc., took out multiple spots for TwinSpires.tv. Lane’s End, Claiborne Farm, WinStar Farm with Pioneerof the Nile, the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Calumet Farm and Three Chimneys were broadcast sponsors.
The track offered a record purse of $1.75 million. What people saw who watched on TV — and one telling number will be the overnight Nielsen rating for the race that comes out Monday morning — was another crowd on a sun-splashed New Jersey day screaming its lungs out and having fun.
They saw splendid footage from the Belmont, from American Pharoah’s return to Churchill Downs. They saw footage of the reaction after American Pharoah won the Triple Crown from Yankee Stadium, from Great American Ballpark, from a crowd gathered in Tampa, and via YouTube video from living rooms. They heard Bob Baffert say, “I’ve been waiting for a horse all this all my life. . . . I’m savoring every day this horse is in my barn.” There was owner and breeder Ahmed Zayat, photographed lying in the stall with the champion thoroughbred, for God’s sake, and talking about hope, and about what it meant for a horse to achieve something that people were beginning to believe couldn’t be done.
These visuals, they are worth something.
Zayat told NBC before the race he was more nervous before the Haskell than he was even before the Belmont. Crazy? No way. Now they know what they have. And they know what they have to lose.
Yes, they’re taking a chance by continuing to run the colt. It’s great for the sport. It’s a gift to the sport, really. It should be recognized, and praised. What Zayat is doing, he doesn’t have to do. Few would’ve blamed him for winning the Triple Crown, then leading American Pharoah off into the sunset.
Instead, he is extending his colt's day in the sun, and by extension, he is doing it for the sport. It is sustaining that magic everyone experienced at the Belmont — especially if American Pharoah continues to run as impressively as he did on Sunday.
The only way anyone loses at this point isn’t if American Pharoah fails to finish first, but if he fails to return to the barn healthy after the race. Thankfully Sunday, that wasn’t an issue.
For now, it’s all fun. It’s Julia Roberts visiting the horse when he gets to his barn in California. It’s Bill Murray in the paddock calling “Riders up,” beginning by shouting, “Gentlemen, we’re burning daylight!”
Yes. We're burning daylight. American Pharoah's days in racing continue to dwindle. But it's going to be a lot of fun in the meantime.
The colt is seeing to that. He won his eighth consecutive race, his seventh straight graded stakes. Baffert won the Haskell for the eighth time.
Espinoza all but stood on American Pharoah for the first three-quarters of a mile, all the while the colt cruising comfortably. Jerry Bailey, for NBC, said Espinoza was “water skiing.” Just before the head of the stretch, he could hold him no longer. By the time they exited the turn he was four lengths in front. He stretched it to six, then coasted.
Afterward, Baffert seemed even more emotional than he was after the Belmont.
“It’s a different feeling, but this horse, he just keeps bringing it,” Baffert said. “I’m a little emotional. He’s just a great horse.”
The first question NBC asked Zayat was about what’s next.
“No clue,” he said.
What’s the rush?
Horse racing deserves to enjoy these moments. If I could gather around all those fans who have sat in sparsely populated off-track betting parlors and watched mediocre claimers and torn tickets and seen the demise of a sport they love and remembered — for so many reasons — I’d have to tell them today, “these are the best of times.”
I don’t know what any of it means for horse racing. It’s naive to think that it can propel the sport back to any kind of major status. But it is introducing large crowds of people to a game they’d paid only marginal attention to before — if any. Pharoah Phanatics are plentiful, and they are of all ages in all parts of the country.
He hasn't turned for home yet, but he has to be the leader for Sportsman of the Year.
There are tougher tests ahead. But this horse and his story have the attention of the American sports world right now. And that attention is a valuable thing for horse racing.
It doesn’t have that spotlight very often.
Fans of the sport and fans of the horse have every right to bask in that light. For so many, this is as good as it gets.
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