A slight nudge was all it took for American Pharoah to seize control of the Haskell Invitational. And when Victor Espinoza asked, the majestic colt delivered an encore performance in his first race since winning the Triple Crown.
"This horse, he just keeps bringing it," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's just a great horse."
With a record crowd of 60,983 cheering him on Sunday at Monmouth Park, American Pharoah came out of the final turn with a clear lead and cruised to a 2 1/4-length victory while Espinoza barely moved a muscle.
"He ran like a champ," Espinoza said.
After winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and first in 37 years, American Pharoah's return was greatly anticipated. Fifty-seven days after the Belmont, the 3-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile looked better than ever in his eighth consecutive victory.
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"That was nerve-racking," Baffert said after his eighth win in the Haskell, five more than any other trainer. "I was getting pretty nervous."
Sent off at odds of 1-10, American Pharoah became the shortest price winner in Haskell history, returning $2.20 for a $2 win bet. He paid $2.10 to place and $2.10 to show.
Keen Ice rallied for second at 18-1 odds, followed by Upstart, Competitive Edge, Top Clearance, Dontbetwithbruno and Mr. Jordan. The winning time for the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:47.95 — 95th hundreds of a second off the Haskell record.
American Pharoah's next start is now the biggest question in racing. There's no answer yet, but options include the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29, the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 19, and the Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Sept. 26.
"No clue," owner Ahmed Zayat said when asked about his colt's next race. "We're going to enjoy this moment."
If all goes according to plan, American Pharoah will run his final race in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31. And then, he's headed down the road to the breeding shed at Coolmore's Ashford Stud.
A few minutes after rocker Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" blared over the speakers as the horses walked onto the track, American Pharoah broke well from post No. 4. But it was Competitive Edge who took the lead. Espinoza kept his horse in second until the far turn. And then, American Pharoah took off and was all alone in the stretch.
The final margin was deceptive because Espinoza never asked American Pharoah to run any harder than necessary.
"It was pretty easy," Espinoza said. "For me the key was just coming out of there running. I knew that other horse would want to take the lead so I sat back just a little bit. I never like to go head and head with another horse so I sat back maybe half a length behind. He did everything by himself. It was pretty easy, pretty impressive."
American Pharoah followed many of his Triple Crown colleagues by winning his first start after three grueling races in five weeks. Of the 11 others, seven won in their return and one, Count Fleet, was retired after the 1943 Belmont with an injury.
American Pharoah opened his career with a loss before reeling off eight in a row — seven of them Grade 1 races. With the $1.1 million payday in the Haskell, the son of Pioneerof the Nile's career earnings soared to $5.6 million.
As he was led back to the winner's circle, the cheers continued.
"I couldn't believe the crowd, how loud it was," an emotional Baffert said, his voice breaking. "It was a great crowd. I love bringing my horses here. Thank you for being behind Pharoah the whole way."
The long day at Monmouth Park began with gates opening at 9 a.m., and fans strolling into the Jersey Shore track after waiting in line for hours, some since 5 a.m. But it wasn't until late afternoon until the place looked packed.
When American Pharoah was led into the paddock, the crowd stood 15 deep around the railing, straining to get a cellphone photo of the colt. And the horse came through with a truly remarkable performance.
"It's very rare that I'm speechless, but I am extremely proud," Zayat said. And the fans loved it, except for a moment when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared in the winner's circle and was loudly booed. "I couldn't be happier that this is happening in the great state of New Jersey. This is a superstar. He has touched everybody's heart."
The Haskell win gave American Pharoah an expense-paid berth in the BC Classic.
The previous Haskell record crowd was 53,368 in 2003, when Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide finished third behind Peace Rules.