The $1 million William Hill Haskell Invitational (gr. I) at Monmouth Park will be American Pharoah 's first start after a historic 5 1/2-length triumph in the June 6 Belmont Stakes presented by DraftKings (gr. I), owner Ahmed Zayat said July 2.
"I wanted to look at a race for him that was still running against 3-year-olds and running in a race that would be easy on him (in his first start back after winning the Triple Crown), considering the campaign he had," Zayat explained. "It's all about American Pharoah. He won the Triple Crown, which is an unbelievable achievement—immortal, historic, great—and I promised myself as a fan and more importantly, (for) the racing world, that we will race him again as long as he's telling us he's a healthy and happy horse."
American Pharoah returned to the worktab June 26 at Santa Anita Park with a three-furlong breeze in :36 2/5 for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. The California trainer has won a record seven editions of the Haskell, a 1 1/8-mile test run Aug. 2 this year near Oceanport, N.J.
"He wanted to wait for me to work the horse back and see how he came out of the work, make sure he was fine," Baffert said. "This basically means the first target is Monmouth Park, if all goes well between now and then. It was one of the obvious choices for us. It's always been a fun race and Mr. Zayat is from Jersey."
Although Baffert holds the record for editions of the Haskell won by a trainer, he has not been to Monmouth Park since taking the 2011 running with Coil. Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes traveled with Zayat's Paynter and Kaleem Shah's Bayern to win in 2012 and 2014, after Baffert, now 62, suffered a heart attack in March of 2012 in Dubai. Baffert did not travel with American Pharoah to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas earlier this season, where Barnes supervised wins in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) and Arkansas Derby (gr. I).
Now that he's the Triple Crown champ, however, American Pharoah will have his white-haired conditioner in tow.
"Of course I'll be there," Baffert said. "I'll be in line at Max's Hot Dogs getting my hot dog at twelve o' clock."
Baffert has credited the landmark Long Branch eatery as his secret to stealing the Haskell in 2001 (with Point Given), 2002 (War Emblem), 2005 (Roman Ruler), and 2010 (Lookin At Lucky ) along with the three more recent wins mentioned above.
Baffert said American Pharoah came through the rigors of the Triple Crown trail in good form. After parading at Santa Anita June 27, his connections have been giving the colt more rest by restricting access.
"With everything that was going on, he started getting a little light on me, but we actually weighed him today and it looks like he's getting it back," Baffert said. "It's been really hot and humid here this past week. Ever since the parade on Saturday, we've just kept him sort of away. We're not showing him a lot, so that's really made a difference. And the work picked him up a little bit, sharpened him up."
American Pharoah's unique resilience through the hard and fast schedule of the Triple Crown trail is what gave his connections the option to run again.
"I wouldn't lead him up there unless he was ready to roll," the trainer said. "All those races we ran this year, that's how we felt. I wouldn't have brought him to the Belmont if I thought the Preakness knocked him out. That's one thing about Mr. Zayat, he's always been really great about 'Hey, don't run him unless you feel good about it.' It's worked out and he's sustained his form, plus he can handle the pressure of shipping. The way he ships—he's gone from track to track to track—it usually wears on them, but he's handled it really well."
Zayat said a run in the $1.25 million Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course is not out of the question for American Pharoah, the homebred 3-year-old colt by Pioneerof the Nile who has won seven races in a row at six different tracks, six of them grade I stakes. In a deal inked before the Belmont, American Pharoah will stand at Ashford Stud near Lexington upon retirement—but his connections have said he could make multiple starts this summer, capped by a run in the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) at Keeneland.
"We have not ruled out Saratoga," Zayat said. "Should he run nicely and win well, we could be wheeling him right back and going to Saratoga, because I have tremendous respect for 'the Spa' and the history there. The Travers is known as the Midsummer Derby and who doesn't want to be there? But I don't want to get ahead of myself. We'll let the horse tell us what to do."
Written into the Haskell conditions is a bonus structure that pays the owner and trainer of a winner of any of the three Triple Crown classic races $25,000 each to run a horse in the Monmouth event. Because American Pharoah won all three Triple Crown races, Zayat and Baffert will each recieve $75,000 extra if he starts.
When asked what kind of an additional bonus Monmouth might pay to have American Pharoah run in the Haskell, Zayat responded, "I have no idea. It's not about money for me at this juncture. I told the Monmouth people, 'Don't worry about money, worry about making a memorable day in kids' lives, in the lives of young people and fans who will come to watch this horse run.' "
According to Dennis Drazin, adviser to Darby Development, which operates Monmouth Park, the track will likely invest more in producing a three-day event called the "Pharoah Phan Phestival" to highlight American Pharoah's run, than they would in paying extravagant appearance fees for the Triple Crown winner's participation in the Haskell.
"This wasn't ever about the money. It was about the horse and what's right for the horse, and you have to commend Mr. Zayat for that—he made it very clear it's not about the money," Drazin said. "We're absolutely thrilled to have American Pharoah aiming for the Haskell. It's a huge accomplishment and historic day for Monmouth Park. We really appreciate Mr. Zayat and Bob Baffert bringing American Pharoah to Monmouth Park. He is a great horse and we're very proud to have him.
"Monmouth Park has always put on a good show and the Haskell is always a big event for us, but we've made it very special this year, because of what we believe is a special horse. Whatever Monmouth does to put together a special tribute in terms of the weekend, the three-day event, that's to honor the horse. I don't think the money makes a difference. That may sound strange to say, but Mr. Zayat felt very strongly that he wasn't going to the highest bidder. If that's the case, he was thrown all kind of offers from around the country that probably wouldn't have been right for the horse. Of course we're going to do a lot of special things that will cost extra money to do, because we want to make as special event for the horse and the fans."
Zayat, a Jewish resident of Teaneck, N.J. originally from Egypt, said he had two priorities for choosing where American Pharoah would start next—the good of the horse, and a track that would provide easy access and a day of celebration for fans.
"What I like about Monmouth Park is it's a summer track, a beach resort feel," he said. "There's a young crowd there. Of course I want to bring him in my state, but the race also happens to be on a Sunday, which allows observant Jews and others who can't come on a Saturday to be at the track.
"My real priority was American Pharoah first. He can run anywhere, any race, it really doesn't matter as long as he's happy and healthy. My next priority was how many fans can come out, enjoy him, and have fun, and that's why we decided to run in the Haskell. I told the Monmouth people, 'Make me the best day in racing that fans can enjoy.' I want a party environment, I want the stars to come, I want to do it for the sport and not worry about the money and stuff—and if they boost the purse, to do it for the right reason, the prestige of the horse."
The approximately 13,000 reserved seats Monmouth Park has offered for Haskell Day have been sold out for a while based upon the supposition that American Pharoah would run in the Haskell. Monmouth will not put a limit on attendance as Belmont Park did on Belmont Day, however, and Drazin said the track is preparing for a capacity crowd of around 60,000.
"We expect every space at Monmouth Park to be utilized," Drazin said. "Even though tickets are sold out, we will have general admission, so people can come in. We're working on added parking and everything we need to make this a great event. It's going to be a great day for New Jersey, a great day for Monmouth Park, and a great day for the Zayat family, American Pharoah, and the Baffert family."