OCEANPORT, N.J. — A funny thing happens when a legacy is settled before a career is over.
In becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, American Pharoah has certain honors in a vise grip. He will win every Eclipse Award he is eligible for in 2015. If the National Museum and Racing Hall of Fame wants to start engraving his moniker on a plaque, odds are it won't be wasted effort.
When one reaches a summit view that can't be spoiled even by a surprise descent, sometimes the only thing left to judge is the quality of the rarefied air.
The final chapters of American Pharoah's tale will start being crafted in Sunday's Grade I, $1.75 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and — injury and ailment notwithstanding — be completed over the next few months before he retires to Ashford Stud. His every move was analyzed before he swept the American classics, so being just the 12th Triple Crown winner and — by extension — an industry ambassador will bring a whole new level of scrutiny.
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He carried the weight of history heading into his 51/2-length Belmont Stakes triumph on June 6, and now the Zayat Stables homebred has the wonderful burden of being judged against only 11 others.
"It's completely different," said Justin Zayat, racing and stallion manager for his family's Zayat Stables. "Now I think it's added pressure because he is the champion, everyone knows he's the Triple Crown winner and everyone expects him to win.
"If he runs second, he could run a huge race but people are going to be disappointed that he didn't win. It's more pressure, but at the same time he doesn't owe us anything. He's done everything."
If American Pharoah is defeated by one of the seven entrants in the 11⁄8-mile Haskell, the historical sky will not fall. Secretariat lost twice after his 1973 sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Seattle Slew suffered his first career defeat in his first start after his 1977 Triple Crown achievement and Affirmed twice finished behind Slew himself as he continued on after his 1978 crowning.
It has been nearly a full year, however, since American Pharoah finished behind another horse, that coming when he ran fifth in his career debut at Del Mar last Aug. 9. With eight career starts to his credit heading into the Haskell, he is the most lightly raced of any of the previous Triple Crown winners and his running lines provide hints that the son of Pioneerof the Nile may only now be coming into his best form.
The stress of winning four races in eight weeks — the Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont — has been cited by more than one trainer of a Haskell contender as a reason American Pharoah could be vulnerable Sunday. Still, the only race where the bay colt had to get on his belly was the Kentucky Derby, where he had a "bad" day and still won by a length.
"Even in discussing the (speed) numbers ... I think you have to put an asterisk next to American Pharoah's numbers. He bounced and won the Derby," said trainer Rick Violette Jr., who will saddle Grade II winner and 6-to-1 morning line second choice, Upstart, in the Haskell. "I don't think that the numbers truly identify how good he is and how fast he is.
"I love my horse but I have enormous respect for American Pharoah."
Trainer Bob Baffert has marveled at how American Pharoah has held his form coming out of the Triple Crown, and his morning gallops at Monmouth have backed up his conditioner's words. On Saturday morning, American Pharoah began his gallop after long shot and fellow Haskell entrant Top Clearance broke off for his routine exercise but had about pulled up to that one's flank by the time they reached the backside.
"Nobody can beat (American Pharoah) if everyone runs their best. He has to regress greatly," said Dale Romans, trainer of Haskell entrant Keen Ice. "My horse, physically and mentally I think he's ready but it's just a matter of having enough talent."
The presence of Competitive Edge and Mr. Jordan in the Haskell field add front-end speed for American Pharoah to contend with, though taking back off the leaders was certainly no issue for him in the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert has repeatedly shut down talk of what race could be next for his champion after Sunday, citing the classic "one race at a time" trainer mantra.
He has too much respect for his colt's legacy to put him in a spot that could potentially tarnish him. But he also knows any blemishes that could happen at this point would only be surface wounds.
"I think there was more pressure for the Kentucky Derby. To me, I felt a lot of pressure for the Kentucky Derby, because we couldn't let that race get away," Baffert said. "This is the icing on the cake, and it's going to be fun to watch him run."
After the crown
How the 11 previous Triple Crown winners fared in their post-Triple Crown careers:
SIR BARTON (1919)
Career record: 31-13-6-5, $116,857
Post-Triple Crown record: 21 starts, nine wins. Defeated Exterminator in 1920 Saratoga Handicap, lost to Man o’ War in match race that October.
First start after Belmont: Finished second to Purchase in the Dwyer Stakes on July 10, 1919.
Final career race: Finished second in Fall Serial at Pimlico on Nov. 10, 1920.
GALLANT FOX (1930)
Career record: 17-11-3-2, $328,165
Post-Triple Crown record: Six starts, five wins. Lone loss during that time was his upset defeat at the hands of long shot Jim Dandy in 1930 Travers.
First start after Belmont: Won the Dwyer Stakes on June 28, 1930.
Final career race: Won Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 17, 1930.
Career record: 22-9-7-2, $154,755
Post-Triple Crown record: Seven starts, four wins. Made his final four starts in England including a win in the Queen’s Plate at Kempton on May 30, 1936
First start after Belmont: Finished third to Discovery in the Brooklyn Handicap on June 22, 1935.
Final career race: Finished second in Princess of Wales’ Stakes at Newmarket on July 2, 1936.
WAR ADMIRAL (1937)
Career record: 26-21-3-1, $273,240.
Post-Triple Crown record: 15 starts, 13 wins. One of his only two losses after the Belmont came when he faced Seabiscuit in their famed Pimlico Special match race in November of 1938.
First start after Belmont: Won an allowance race at Laurel Park on Oct. 26, 1937.
Final career race: Won an allowance race at Hialeah on Feb. 18, 1939.
Career record: 60-32-15-9, $561,161.
Post-Triple Crown record: 33 starts, 18 wins. Scored victories in the Travers, Clark Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup and had a walkover in the 1942 Pimlico Special. Only time he was worst than third in his final 33 starts was when he ran fifth in his final career start.
First start after Belmont: Won Dwyer Stakes on June 21, 1941.
Final career race: Finished fifth in the Equipoise Mile Handicap at Washington Park on June 26, 1943.
COUNT FLEET (1943)
Career record: 21-16-4-1, $250,300.
Post-Triple Crown record: Count Fleet was injured during his 25-length romp in the Belmont Stakes and was retired after his Triple Crown sweep. He is the only Triple Crown winner to never race again after the Belmont.
Career record: 42-18-6-7, $675,470.
Post-Triple Crown record: 27 starts, 11 wins. Endured a six-race losing skid in the second half of his 3-year-old year before beating rival and fellow future Hall of Famer Stymie in the 1946 Pimlico Special.
First start after Belmont: Won Dwyer Stakes on June 15, 1946.
Final career race: Finished seventh to Noor in the Hollywood Gold Cup on Dec. 9, 1950.
Career record: 45-32-10-2, $1,085,760.
Post-Triple Crown record: 25 starts, 14 wins. Carried a 16-race win streak into the early stages of his campaign in 1950 having knocked off victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Pimlico Special.
First start after Belmont: Won Stars & Stripes Handicap at Arlington Park on July 5, 1948.
Final career race: Won Hollywood Gold Cup on July 14, 1951.
Career record: 21-16-3-1, $1,316,808.
Post-Triple Crown record: Six starts, four wins. Made his last two starts on turf, winning the Grade I Man o’ War and Grade II Canadian International en route to being named champion turf horse for 1973 along with Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male.
First start after Belmont: Won the Arlington Invitational at Arlington Park on June 30, 1973.
Final career race: Won Canadian International at Woodbine on Oct. 28, 1973.
SEATTLE SLEW (1977)
Career record: 17-14-2-0, $1,208,726.
Post-Triple Crown record: Eight starts, five wins. In the first meeting between two Triple Crown winners, he defeated 1978 winner Affirmed in that year’s Grade I Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park.
First start after Belmont: Finished fourth in the Grade I Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park on July 3, 1977.
Final career race: Won Grade III Stuyvesant Handicap on Nov. 11, 1978.
Career record: 29-22-5-1, $2,393,818.
Post-Triple Crown record: 13 starts, eight wins. Was disqualified and placed second behind Alydar in the 1978 Travers, the final of 10 meetings between the two rivals with Affirmed winning seven of those battles. Finished behind 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in the 1978 Marlboro Cup and Jockey Club Gold Cup but defeated Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup.
First start after Belmont: Won Grade III Jim Dandy Stakes on Aug. 8, 1978 at Saratoga.
Final career race: Won Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 6, 1979 at Belmont Park.
ALICIA WINCZE HUGHES