OCEANPORT, N.J. — Ahmed Zayat, one of the most assured owners in Thoroughbred racing, found himself in the Monmouth Park stands on Sunday trying to squash the pangs of doubt that kept buzzing like gnats within his mind.
It wasn't that Zayat had lost a drop of faith in American Pharoah, the homebred bay colt of his that was whipping the crowd of 60,983 into a frenzy before the Grade I, $1.75 million Haskell Invitational. It's just that he, like many, were wondering how the horse who had already kicked history in the teeth could possibly keep raising his own bar of brilliance.
Beside Zayat, trainer Bob Baffert was giving an Academy Award-worthy performance as his unfazed demeanor masked his nerves as he watched the colt he developed into the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years load into the gate.
One would think American Pharoah's human companions would know better by now. The son of Pioneerof the Nile doesn't do things that a conventional racehorse does, and in the ninth start of his already storied career, he again make a mockery out of the notion he was in danger of being felled by a peer.
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Another day. Another start. Another American Pharoah demolition.
In his first race since capturing the Belmont Stakes on June 6 to become just the 12th horse to sweep the American classics, American Pharoah was his usual condescending self in the Haskell Invitational, crossing the wire 21/4 lengths in front of Keen Ice in a race whose margin was only that close because jockey Victor Espinoza wrapped up on his champion mount in midstretch.
Though seven of the prior 11 Triple Crown winners won their first start back after their sweep (1943 winner Count Fleet was retired after his Belmont triumph), both Zayat and Baffert conceded to feeling the pressure of expectations as each one of American Pharoah's seven prior victories had seemingly been better than the one before.
The Haskell is now in the conversation as being the colt's best outing yet. After sitting second behind Grade I winner Competitive Edge through fractions of 23.22 and 46.14, American Pharoah pulled Espinoza to the front at the quarter pole and was a couple gears from being in a canter as he crossed the wire in 1:47.95 over a fast track for the 11⁄8-miles race.
"I was extremely nervous before the race, more than the Belmont," said Zayat, who bred and campaigns American Pharoah under his Zayat Stables banner. "I had a lot of faith in my horse but I would be lying if I didn't have ... second guessing of myself. Today, there were a lot of question marks.
"What would he do after the Triple Crown? Am I doing right by this sport or not? I did not want to disappoint the fans. Today, when I saw him running and being pressured and ... when I started seeing those ears perked up and happy, it's total gratification."
American Pharoah gave Baffert his record eighth win in the Haskell. He also validated his trainer's theory that the colt might actually be on the improve in the aftermath of his Triple Crown journey.
In his works over what Baffert has termed a deep, tiring Del Mar main track, American Pharoah has continued to float effortlessly. If he doesn't look physically much bigger than he did eight weeks ago, his action has been that of a horse who is growing in power.
"Today I felt it for the first time. I might not have looked nervous but ... I was more nervous than any time I've run him," Baffert said. "What I saw was amazing. I'm looking at this horse like 'Where did he come from?'
"He makes me emotional because he's a gift from God or something. He's just a brilliant racehorse and one that as a trainer we wait a lifetime to get one like this."
Breaking from post three in the seven-horse Haskell field, American Pharoah took back kindly for Espinoza and was perfectly relaxed rating just outside of Competitive Edge with Mr. Jordan third early on.
"I knew the other horse would want to take the lead so I sat back a little bit," Espinoza said. "He did everything by himself. It was pretty easy, pretty impressive today."
With Competitive Edge put away entering the head of the lane, American Pharoah was in a hand ride as he poured it on with a wall of joyful noise as his soundtrack. Keen Ice bravely rallied from sixth to get runner-up honors with Upstart third in his first start back since being eased in the Kentucky Derby.
"This is best this horse has ever run for us. He just keeps improving and he's going to keep getting better," said Dale Romans, trainer of Keen Ice. "But (America Pharoah) is the best horse I've ever personally run against. I told Mr. Zayat the first time I saw him work, he might be the best horse I've ever seen.
"I'm going to stick to that, but I'm going to keep chasing him."
As per his usual fashion, Baffert was noncommittal on where American Pharoah could start next, saying that he's heeding what his champion charge tells him above all others.
"We have to get him home (to Del Mar) and see how he bounces out of this," Baffert said. "There are a lot of options out there but ... every time I lead him out there I want to feel good about it. Right now, we just feel like we have something really special and we owe it to him."