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In first race since Triple Crown, American Pharoah continues to amaze

American Pharoah won his first race since claiming horse racing's Triple Crown.

Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat knew there was risk in running American Pharoah after he won the Triple Crown.

The brilliant colt could no longer exceed expectations; he could only win or be labeled a disappointment.

So Baffert, the trainer, and Zayat, the owner, felt excruciating tension Sunday as they waited for American Pharoah to enter the starting gate at the William Hill Haskell Invitational, his first race since the Belmont Stakes.

"I just did not want to let this crowd down," Baffert said.

They needn't have feared. Superstardom did nothing to dull American Pharoah's competitive form. He won the $1.75-million Haskell almost casually, with jockey Victor Espinoza easing him to the finish line as a record crowd of 60,983 roared approval.

"I'm looking at this horse like, 'Where did he come from?'" Baffert said afterward. "He makes me emotional, because he's just a gift from God or something. … As a trainer, you wait your whole life to get one like this."

American Pharoah is racing's lone transcendent star. Even the horsemen attempting to beat him enjoy playing supporting roles in his traveling show.

"The whole world's watching the game now, and that's what makes it good," said trainer Dale Romans, whose Keen Ice gamely chased American Pharoah down the stretch. "He's the best horse I've ever personally run against."

American Pharoah will likely run once more before closing his career in the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., on Halloween. Possibilities for his next race include the Aug. 29 Travers Stakes at Saratoga in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., or the Sept. 19 Pennsylvania Derby at Parx in suburban Philadelphia.

With opportunities to watch the sport's biggest attraction dwindling, tracks are fiercely bidding to host the next big show.

Baffert and Zayat would each receive $200,000 bonuses if American Pharoah runs in Pennsylvania (the bonuses lured Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome last year). But the New York Racing Association has said it would bump the Travers purse from $1.25 million to $1.6 million if he runs there.

He could also stick to his home base at Del Mar Racetrack in California and run there.

Baffert and Zayat on Sunday refused to tip their hand, saying they will assess American Pharoah's form after he ships back to Del Mar on Monday morning. "Anything can happen," Baffert said.

Few expected the Haskell field to pose much of a challenge for American Pharoah, who bested more accomplished foes in each of his Triple Crown wins. He went off as a 1-9 favorite.

He had already dusted Upstart in the Kentucky Derby, and Keen Ice hadn't come close to running him down in either the Derby or the Belmont Stakes. The Todd Pletcher-trained Competitive Edge had finished a disappointing sixth in the Woody Stephens Stakes on the Belmont undercard.

As most analysts predicted, Competitive Edge set the early pace Sunday, with American Pharoah cruising just behind him. When Espinoza asked the Triple Crown winner to move, he opened a sizable lead and held it. The race was just that simple.

"It was pretty easy," Espinoza said of the trip. "He did everything on his own."

American Pharoah paid $2.20 on a $2 bet to win, $2.10 to place and $2.10 to show. Keen Ice finished second ($4.80, $2.80) and Upstart third ($2.40).

A crowd of 5,000 showed up Friday morning, just to watch American Pharoah take his first gallop on the dirt at Monmouth Park. That's more than the track draws for many racing days. The masses lingered past noon to catch glimpses of the Triple Crown winner schooling in the paddock.

Actor Bill Murray turned out to watch him run Sunday.

Like many tracks around the country, Monmouth Park has coped with economic uncertainty in recent years, but for one day at least, American Pharoah's star power was enough to push those worries to the side.

"You never see it like this," said Joe Sylvester of Long Branch, N.J., surveying the throng of well-dressed patrons, young and old.

"Wherever this was, I would've gone," said his buddy, Tom Abogabal. "But it's once in a lifetime having a Triple Crown winner run in your backyard."

Abogabal is a first-generation Egyptian-American, so American Pharoah's name caught his eye even before the colt won the Kentucky Derby.

"I bet $50 on him to win the Triple Crown just off the name," he said. "I used to be called the American pharaoh in high school."

Abogabal showed up wearing a golden headdress and toting a plastic cobra staff (a repurposed 40th birthday costume). Fellow American Pharoah fans lined up to take photos with him.

"This is the first time a lot of these people have given a crap about horse racing since they watched the end of the Seabiscuit movie," he said.

The 12,000 reserved tickets for the Haskell sold out rapidly after rumors intensified that American Pharoah would next run at Monmouth Park. General admission tickets were available starting at 9 a.m. Sunday, with track officials expecting the crowd to blow past the record 53,683 set in 2003 when Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide ran in the Haskell.

The race has attracted nine Derby winners over the years, in part because it's one of the most lucrative options on the summer circuit. The purse, bolstered from $1 million to $1.75 million last week, was the largest in New Jersey racing history and greater than those for the Preakness or Belmont. Zayat and Baffert also received $75,000 bonuses because American Pharoah won the Triple Crown.

In the grandstand, a steady stream of customers bought American Pharoah t-shirts, hats and photographs. His colors, turquoise and yellow, were everywhere. Longtime Haskell patrons said they'd never seen such excitement over a single horse.

"This is a real special one," said Tom McCann, who lives about 30 miles from Monmouth Park.

"I need to get in perfect position to take a picture of him," said McCann's wife, Janet. "Oh yeah, I want to see him."

This is American Pharoah's life now — everyone wants a glimpse.

The Saturday after his historic win at Belmont, 30,000 fans streamed into Churchill Downs just to watch him walk in a parade, draped in his white Triple Crown blanket.

In July, he was up for an ESPY for "Best Championship Performance." He lost for the first time in 2015 (to LeBron James), but his jockey, Espinoza, did get to ride host Joel McHale onto the stage at the nationally-televised ceremony.

At Del Mar, the beachside track where American Pharoah has resided since mid-July, his morning workouts routinely draw hundreds of onlookers.

He lives in the sporting zeitgeist for 2015, with fans pitting him against Steph Curry and Serena Williams in athlete-of-the-year debates.

Of course, none of that makes it easier to chart the future course for a performer who's already achieved his signature feat.

Zayat has said he owes it to the sport to show off his champion. But Baffert has seemed warier, always cognizant of the dreary headlines when Secretariat lost in the Whitney Handicap after taking the 1973 Triple Crown. He has said he never wants American Pharoah to be cast as a disappointment and won't run him if he thinks a letdown is looming.

But American Pharoah keeps amazing Baffert, which makes the Hall of Fame trainer a lot like everyone else.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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