by Frank Vespe
Monmouth Park has won.
Now, will American Pharoah do the same?
The Oceanport, NJ track will host the Triple Crown winner’s first post-Crown start, which will come in the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational on August 2, espn.com reports.
“I’ve decided to do the logical step and run American Pharoah at Monmouth,” owner Ahmed Zayat told ESPN. “I’m trying to create one of the best days racing has ever seen for its fans and one that will also fit the prestige that surrounds American Pharoah. I want it to be a great day for everyone that will celebrate racing.”
The decision followed a public bout of navel-gazing in which Zayat stirred up intrigue by cryptically tweeting that Saratoga — home of the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, the day before the Haskell, and the Grade 1 Travers later that same month — was “in the lead” over the Haskell, though no one could figure out what “in the lead” really meant, or how the Spa had gotten there.
It also followed a reverse feeding frenzy in which tracks around the country fought to find ways to disgorge money in Zayat’s direction. Monmouth has an extant bonus program — one which it has used to lure numerous high-profile sophomores to the Jersey Shore — and other tracks vied to follow suit. Del Mar attempted to put together an elaborate, multi-race bonus which insiders thought could hit $5 million. Tiny Canterbury Park, in Minnesota, proposed to turn a $200,000 turf stake into a $2 million dirt stake, if the Pharoah would come.
Zayat was quoted in the Albany Times-Union characterizing this as “every track want[ing] to do what (is) best for the sport and give honor to our champ.”
But it’s not hard to imagine that the tracks’ interest in having a big payday — Monmouth is looking at the biggest crowd in its history — might actually trump their desire to “do what is best for the sport.”
Still and all, the decision’s made (it seems), and so the next question — assuming Pharoah ultimately does line up on August 2 — is whether he’ll win.
If history holds, he’ll be a very short-priced favorite. He was 3-4 in the Belmont Stakes, and the average post-time odds of 10 prior Triple Crown winners to run back (Count Fleet never ran again after the Belmont) has been less than 2-5. All 10 have been favored in their next start, with the longest price belonging to Omaha, who was even money when he faced his elders in the Brooklyn a couple of weeks after winning the 1935 Triple Crown.
And, if history holds, Pharoah will run pretty well. Seven of the 10 prior Crown winners won their next start, with Seattle Slew — a troubled fourth in the Grade 1 Swaps, which he ran three weeks after the Belmont against the advice of then-trainer Billy Turner — the only one of the 10 to finish worse than third.
On top of all that, Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, has had a fair bit of Haskell success — winning it seven times, including last year, with Bayern — so it’s fair to say he knows how to ready a horse for a run at Monmouth.
But of course, whether he’ll win or not figures to depend on who shows up to run against him, and whether there’s an Onion or an Upset in the lot. In other words, Monmouth’s already won, but Pharoah still has some work to do.