American Pharoah Passes Test at Monmouth

Events / Travel

American Pharoah put in another dominant display on Sunday in the Haskell. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire, all others by Acacia Courtney)

We fans are a tough crowd to please. Always, regardless of how many accomplishments we see, we are looking for more. It’s not enough to simply be the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. That doesn’t really show us anything. We want to see that this feat was not just a fluke, that American Pharoah is indeed great. You might say, “phans are phickle.”

This weekend, the Zayat homebred raced for the first time since his stunning Triple Crown glory, effortlessly crossing the finish line ahead of his competitors in the William Hill Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. People arrived from everywhere, decked out in the Zayat colors of turquoise and gold and American Pharoah foam fingers, breaking the park’s attendance record. The atmosphere of the Pharoah Phan Phest was one of excitement, but also a slight nervous energy, as we all waited to see if the champ could continue his winning streak or if he would be knocked off his pedestal.


At the risk of not getting a place to sit or a spot with a good view, some fans camped out in front of Monmouth Park hours before the gates opened at 9 a.m. When they finally were allowed inside, people could be seen sprinting through the park, folding chairs and coolers in hand. I described it as a scene not unlike shoppers on Black Friday, anxious to be the first to snag those super deals.

As the day progressed, the track became more and more crowded. The Horse Racing Radio Network team started our broadcast at 4 p.m. with the Monmouth Cup, two races ahead of the much-anticipated Haskell Invitational. As Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah’s jockey, entered the paddock to get a leg up on his mount for this race, he was greeted like a rock star would be. Nearly two hours before he would ride the Triple Crown champion, people were clamoring for autographs and selfies, wishing him luck and a safe trip.


Fun fact: most paddocks in the United States do not allow drinks in the enclosed area where the horses are saddled. At Monmouth on Haskell Day, however, a bar is set up on the mulch under the shade of the mushroom-shaped trees in the paddock. Drinks are not just allowed, but encouraged. Monmouth hands them right to you.

When it was finally time for the big race and the moment of truth that everyone had been waiting for, there was not an inch of room on the apron, as everyone crowded as close as they could to the track, anxious for a glimpse of American Pharoah. They erupted into a roar as he arrived from the barns, brought out last in line behind his fellow Haskell contenders. Calm and charismatic as always, American Pharoah eyed his admirers as if to say, “it’s good to be back.”

As I stood in my spot against the rail by the winner’s circle (I was wedged in between flower boxes and the large bell signifying the time for rider’s up, and I was not about to move and let someone else grab my prime real estate), I surveyed the crowd and listened to New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” playing as the horses walked from the paddock to the track, and I got chills. Tucking my microphone under my arm so that I had a free hand, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, joining the thousands of people snapping a picture of the horse with the yellow “4” saddlecloth. For a brief moment, I was not on-air. I was not working. I was simply another fan, awed by the magnificence of the champion in front of me.


The Haskell was, for American Pharoah, almost easy. He seemed to glide over the finish line with ease, and it could be argued that Espinoza never really asked him to run to his full potential. There are whispers of where the duo will go next. The Travers in Saratoga at the end of August? Pennsylvania Derby at Parx in September? Perhaps American Pharoah is still saving up for an even bigger challenge?

Certainly, winning the Haskell, his first race after the Triple Crown, is a kind of affirmation that American Pharoah really is all he’s cracked up to be. But can we call him great yet? Some say yes, some say no. I would have been shocked if he had not won the Haskell, and, as game and as talented as his competitors would, this weekend’s race did not really seem to test the now-famous horse.

How can we measure greatness? There is no set formula. So far, American Pharoah has done all that has been asked of him. He has been a large part of the revived interest that our sport has experienced over the past two months. Like all celebrities, he will have his critics. Even Channing Tatum has his haters. Greatness is a matter of opinion, and only time will tell what more American Pharoah can accomplish. Regardless of what else happens, however, he will still be the first winner of that elusive Triple Crown in 37 years and a very special horse that will go down in history.

He is, in my humble opinion, great.

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