American Pharoah heads home to Kentucky after Triple Crown win
NEW YORK -- A hero's welcome greeted Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in Kentucky on Sunday, the first of many such receptions expected for the sporting world's newest superstar.
The 3-year-old colt has more racing in his future, along with an avalanche of publicity and money-making opportunities after pulling off the first sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 37 years.
Before leaving Belmont Park, trainer Bob Baffert led American Pharoah onto a patch of grass outside of, fittingly, Barn 1 on a sunny and warm morning. It was only hours after his front-running, 5 1/2-length victory, but the low-key champ appeared to enjoy the attention, dutifully posing for photographers and patiently letting bystanders pet him.
"He's a really sweet horse," Baffert said. "We're going to share him with everybody."
There were celebrity visits, too, for the newest member of racing's elite club. Fellow Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott stopped by for a close-up look at American Pharoah, much like Baffert visited Mott's barn in the mid-1990s to see Cigar, who won 16 consecutive races.
American Pharoah arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, later in the day, and was greeted by hundreds of cheering fans at Churchill Downs, his home in between Triple Crown races.
Jockey Victor Espinoza threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium, where Baffert attended the game.
Next up for racing's 12th Triple Crown winner is some well-deserved downtime, having run in and won five Grade 1 races in nearly 2 1/2 months. That's a compressed schedule for a racehorse, most of which have at least 30 days between starts.
"It's ridiculously insane what he did yesterday," Baffert said. "It was a beautiful moment."
Owner Ahmed Zayat pledged to keep the horse in training, at least through the end of the year. Before the Belmont, Zayat sold breeding rights to American Pharoah to Coolmore Ashford Stud near Versailles, Kentucky. The family has said it received offers higher than $20 million, but the terms of the deal haven't been disclosed.
"They have zero say until he retires," Zayat said. "We owe it to the sport to do the right thing. Money plays an important factor in this game. I've already sold the breeding rights, but it is my genuine desire, as a fan, as someone who loves horses, to race him as long as I possibly can."
Zayat will leave it up to Baffert to map out a schedule. Among the races under consideration are the Jim Dandy at Saratoga in upstate New York on Aug. 1; the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth in New Jersey on Aug. 2; the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 22; and the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29.
With a newfound legacy to protect, Baffert vowed American Pharoah would be properly prepared for his next race, saying, "He'll tell me."
The Haskell might have an edge because Baffert has won it a record seven times and Zayat lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.
"He's an athlete. We have to keep him moving," Baffert said. "He's so happy when he's on that track."
The ultimate goal would be the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, to be run Oct. 31 at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, the cradle of American racing and breeding and near where American Pharoah will serve stud duty.
The colt was named champion 2-year-old last year and is a cinch to lock up similar honours as a 3-year-old. But all that racing "wears on them and eventually it catches up," said Baffert, who understands Zayat's eventual desire to retire American Pharoah to the breeding shed.
"This way they get rewarded," Baffert jokingly told The Associated Press recently. "They get to have sex with 200 mares a year."
Should anything happen to the colt in future races, Zayat is covered by an insurance policy for which the rates are "incredibly high," Baffert said recently.
Zayat, who has invested tens of millions of dollars into his breeding, buying and racing operation, believes it's not always about money when you're passionate about something.
"We are not thinking here of value or money," he said. "When the horse is ready, we will not be scared of running him to lose or not. It's all about the fans and this belongs to history."
Off the racetrack, Zayat figures to have marketing and merchandising opportunities to sort through. Just what kind of offers he receives and deals he cuts are uncharted territory since American Pharoah is the first Triple Crown winner in the Internet and social media age.
Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, was featured on major non-sports magazine covers and the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honour. He remains a pop culture touchstone for even non-racing fans, and merchandise featuring him sold at Belmont Park on Saturday.
Judging by the crowd's reaction to history, American Pharoah seems likely to be a popular champion, having cemented his legacy in New York, where the public is not easily won over.
"Everybody was on board with this horse," Baffert said. "I was pretty in awe of him myself."