American Pharoah & everybody else
Triple Crown champion American Pharoah turned the Haskell (G1) into a stroll on the beach. Sure, he was supposed to do that, and anything else would have been a shock to the system. But it's his manner of racing that continues to bring delight.
Of course, "it's the way he did it" can be overused in our sport, sometimes as a fig leaf for a performance that may not stand up to closer, more objective scrutiny. The beauty of Pharoah is that's not the case with him. The visual impression he creates -- "the way he does it" -- adds another layer of appreciation to his very substantial accomplishment.
Although Pharoah broke alertly and actually led in the first few strides, his superb tractability, and assured sense of self-control, allow him to drop the bit and listen to Victor Espinoza. Competitive Edge hustled up to his inside to play catch-me-if-you-can, and Pharaoh kindly let him go, as if to say, "Quite all right. I'll just sit right off you for now."
As Competitive Edge rattled off testing splits of :23.22, :46.14 and 1:09.60 in his two-turn debut, Pharoah glided along in total command of the situation. He was well aware that he could go by in a flash, just when Victor liked. And so he inhaled the pacesetter midway on the far turn. With Victor like a statue in the saddle, the reins still tight in his hands, Pharoah streaked five lengths clear through a mile in 1:34.44. His incredibly efficient action makes him look as though he's not going as fast as he really is.
Pharoah again obeyed Victor's cue to throttle down, and he coasted through the final furlong to complete 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.95. Had he been seriously asked at any point, he would have come a lot closer to Spend a Buck's track record of 1:46 4/5.
Keen Ice ran well to reduce the winning margin to 2 1/4 lengths at the wire, but that was entirely on Pharoah's sufferance. He could have easily been beaten twice as far. The deep closer was also assisted by the hot pace he craves. Although this was a fine prep for the Travers (G1), he may not get the same pace help at Saratoga while facing a deeper cast of others who'll stay the 1 1/4-mile trip.
Upstart ran a useful third in his first start since his Kentucky Derby (G1) debacle, but I think he'll benefit from a cutback in trip.
Competitive Edge tired to fourth, hopefully prompting connections to take a page from Hard Spun's playbook and shorten up for the seven-furlong King's Bishop (G1) on Travers Day.
The Haskell result reiterated what's been plainly established by Pharoah's march through the Triple Crown: his dominance over his contemporaries. Ed DeRosa noted yesterday how the West Virginia Derby (G2) and Jim Dandy (G2) results continued to flatter Pharoah, and you can add stablemate Gimme Da Lute's hat trick in the Affirmed (G3), Los Alamitos Derby (G2) and Sunday's Real Good Deal.
The one gloss I'd make to that argument is that Texas Red is a much improved animal from the one who checked in third behind Pharoah in last fall's FrontRunner (G1). He's the only potential three-year-old rival that's left for Pharaoh to vanquish. I wouldn't push that point too far, but neither is it totally accurate to judge Texas Red on the basis of 2014 form. On a strict line through Frosted, he's still some way behind Pharoah, but for the sake of tidying up loose ends, I'd like to see Texas Red at least have his chance.
I don't have any compelling arguments to make about where Pharoah should go next and why.
But I did find a couple of quotes from the post-Haskell press conference worth noting. While trainer Bob Baffert sounded completely wedded to the idea of sticking to three-year-old company for now, owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat observed that we can't really gauge Pharoah's improvement over the course of the season, and his place in history, until he ventures outside of his own division and tackles his elders. The October 31 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Keeneland is the likeliest venue for that to happen. Still, might that comment suggest a sliver of a possibility of trying older horses before the Breeders' Cup?
Photo courtesy of Bill Denver/Equi-Photo.