The Champ Returns to The Starting Gate

The explosion of joy that followed American Pharoah’s emphatic triumph in the Belmont Stakes and put a big flashy ribbon on America’s first Triple Crown in 37 years still seems very close in our collective rear-view mirror.  Despite that, the final half of the champ’s racing season – and the stretch run of a fabulous career – is set to begin on Sunday with a run in the $1 million William Hill Haskell Invitational at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park.

Ahmed Zayat’s homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile tuned up for Sunday’s run with a solid half-mile work on Tuesday at Southern California’s Del Mar in which he cruised easily through a half-mile in :48.80 under jockey Martin Garcia.  The move was not one of the Kentucky Derby winner’s routinely spectacular moves that have been a signature of his unforgettable spring, but the ease of his final Haskell tune-up was part of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s design.

20150502 Finish2The great trainer Horatio Luro, who saddled Northern Dancer to win the 1964 Kentucky Derby, had words of caution in the handling of a good horse: “Don’t squeeze the lemon dry.”

Baffert will barely discuss what the next target for his Triple Crown winner could be.  He’s insisting that he’s taking it one race at a time with the American Pharoah, and that the horse will be retired if he shows any sign of a significant backward step.

The colt was scheduled to embark on his eastward journey on Wednesday, and will be joined at Monmouth by regular jockey Victor Espinoza.

American Pharoah will be heavily favored to defeat a small field of five or so rivals in the Haskell.  If he does, he’ll raise an already solid winning percentage for Triple Crown winners in their first race following the Triple Crown.  Of the 11 previous Triple Crown winners, seven of 10 won their first races following their respective sweeps of spring classics.

Affirmed (1978), Secretariat (1973), Citation (1948), Assault (1946), Whirlaway (1941), War Admiral (1937) and Gallant Fox (1930) all won the race that followed the Triple Crown.  War Admiral could deserve an asterisk, given that his next outing was an allowance race at Maryland’s Laurel in 1938 – 143 days after his Belmont Stakes triumph.

The best-known defeat following a Triple Crown was the fourth-place run by previously unbeaten Seattle Slew (1978), who finished a dull fourth in an ill-advised run in the Swaps at Hollywood Park just 22 days after the Belmont.  The race ended the partnership of Slew and trainer Billy Turner, who strongly opposed the colt’s quick return after the Triple Crown.

Sir Barton, who swept the three races in 1919 and retroactively became the first winner of the Triple Crown, and 1933 winner Omaha were the only other horses to be defeated in their first runs after their Triple Crown sweeps.  Sir Barton was runner-up in the Dwyer Stakes nearly a month after his Belmont Stakes win, while Omaha finished third against older horses just 14 days following his Triple Crown.

The only remaining Triple Crown winner was Count Fleet, who did not race again following his wins in the 1937 Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Most Triple Crown winners raced with distinction following their return to competition, but all tasted defeat at one time or another.  The mighty Secretariat lost twice following his 1973 Triple Crown, which was the first since Citation completed his sweep 25 years earlier.

The late H.A. “Allen” Jerkens beat Big Red both times with upsets by the inelegantly named Onion in the Saratoga’s Whitney and Prove Out in Belmont Park’s Woodward.

It will be a delight to see American Pharoah’s return in the Haskell.  He has trained brilliantly in California, leading Baffert to remark “I think he’s gettingRossi, Oriana2 (T-giving 2011) faster” after a scorching six-furlong training session more than a week ago at Del Mar.

With a strong showing, American Pharoah could run three more times before he moves to a breeding shed at the end of the year.  The last of those would be at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, which hosts its first Breeders’ Cup World Championships on Oct. 30-31.

The $5 million Classic has been penciled in as his final race.  There was magic in his first visit to Kentucky when he struggled, but found a way to win, the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands.  Let’s hope for more good fortune along the road back to Kentucky through the late summer and early fall.

Kentucky racing fans are also hoping for good news on the condition of jockey Oriana Rossi, who was critically injured last week during a spill in a race at Indiana Grand near Indianapolis.  She suffered what were reported to be multiple fractures of her back and neck in the two-horse mishap.

Jockey Alex Contreras, who was also injured in the spill, underwent back surgery.  But Rossi appeared, by far, to be the most seriously injured and her long-term prognosis remains unclear.

Word of the accident and the injuries brought to mind an incident at the same track that previously claimed the life of 17-year-old jockey Juan Saez, a quickly rising star who had won his first riding title at Kentucky’s Ellis Park just a few weeks earlier.

Kind thoughts and prayers that readers would like to send to the injured jockeys would surely be appreciated by their friends and families.