OCEANPORT: With a record Monmouth Park crowd lustily cheering him on, Zayat Stables' American Pharoah cruised to his eighth straight victory Sunday, winning the $1.75 million Haskell Invitational (Grade 1) by any margin his rider pleased.
At the end of the mile and an eighth, the Triple Crown winner scored by two and a quarter lengths over the hard-trying Keen Ice in the time of 1:47 4/5, giving trainer Bob Baffert his record eighth victory in Monmouth's signature race.
But there was no doubt the margin could have been 10 times that, and the final time could have shattered the stakes and track records. Jockey Victor Espinoza just sat quietly the entire race on the big bay son of Pioneerof the Nile, and they crossed the wire completely under wraps. The Equibase chart says "Easily." And that's an understatement.
The biggest crowd in Monmouth history -- a record-shattering 60,983 -- and a world-wide television audience installed American Pharoah as the 1-10 favorite to follow up his Triple Crown sweep with another super performance. And the super colt delivered, paying a record low price of $2.20, $2.10 and $2.10 across the board.
The excitement also produced a record handle for the race and for Haskell Day. A total of $6,544,247 was bet on the Haskell, shattering the mark of $4,463,736 on the 2010 running. Total handle for the day was $20,024,509, a huge increase over the previous mark of $17,642,955 set in 2008.
"What an amazing day," said Dennis Drazin, advisor to Darby Development LLC, operators of the track. "We were prepared and it showed. I want to express my gratitude to the entire Zayat family and to trainer Bob Baffert for giving New Jersey the biggest day in horse racing the Garden State has ever seen.
"I also want to thank the entire Monmouth Park team, who have worked tirelessly to make today the great success that it was. And, of course, I want to thank the fans, who truly made this an event that won't soon be forgotten."
Keen Ice, who was 18-1 and giving his all through the stretch under Kent Desormeaux, finished second, three lengths in front of Upstart, the 6-1 second favorite. Keen Ice paid $4.80 and $2.80 and completed the $10.80 exacta. Upstart paid $2.40 to show.
This Haskell victory was Baffert's eighth in total and second straight, following Bayern's score last year. The trainer started his run with Point Given in 2001, following with War Emblem (2002), Roman Ruler (2005), Lookin at Lucky (2010), Coil (2011) and Paynter (2012).
This was by far the richest Haskell Baffert has won. In the week leading up to the race, Darby Development upped the purse by $750,000, making this 48th running of the Haskell Invitational the richest race ever run in New Jersey, save for the Breeders' Cup races in 2007.
The winner's share of $1.1 million brought American Pharoah's career total to $5,630,300. The bay colt out of the Yankee Gentleman mare Littleprincessemma has now won eight straight graded stakes races since he lost his first start in a maiden event.
"I was so nervous today," Baffert said. "I was pretty anxious. I was more nervous than any time I've run him. He got a little stirred up in the paddock. He was pretty fresh because he's had a lot of time between races. I wanted him sharp today because I knew the pace was going to be fast.
"Competitive Edge, he's a fast horse. He was just cruising. Down the backside, I saw Victor had a hold of Pharoah and I looked at those fast fractions, but it looked like he was going in :48. It's something that every time we run him or work him, he's just getting stronger and better.
"What I saw was amazing," Baffert added. "I watched like a fan today. I'm looking at this horse like, where did he come from? I've had some really nice horses, but this horse, what he does is just incredible. He makes me emotional because he's a gift from God."
"It was pretty easy," Espinoza said in a stroke of understatement. "For me the key was just coming out of there running. I didn't want to get into any bumping out of the gate. I just wanted to let him run his race. I knew that other horse (Competitive Edge) would want to take the lead, so I sat back just a little bit, maybe a half-length behind.
"He did everything by himself," the rider said. "It was pretty easy. Pretty impressive."
The race unfolded in simple fashion. Competitive Edge used his speed to take the lead leaving the gate. American Pharoah broke smoothly and Espinoza was content to sit second around the clubhouse turn and down the backstretch through a quarter in :23 1/5 and a half-mile in :46
Nearing the 3/8ths pole, the champ could not be contained any longer. With the barest of efforts, American Pharoah moved to the lead, six furlongs in 1:09 3/5, and went right on by Competitive Edge without effort.
American Pharoah entered the stretch with a daylight lead over the fading pacesetter, running the mile in 1:34 2/5. Espinoza really wrapped up at this point, and a determined Keen Ice gave the longshot players a brief thrill. But his closing flurry was an illusion.
"The horse gave me the race of his life," Desormeaux said of Keen Ice. "He ran the entire mile and an eighth. I'm so proud of him."
American Pharoah's time of 1:47 4/5 was just over the Haskell stakes record of 1:47 flat (held jointly by Majestic Light and Bet Twice) and one seconds slower than the track record of 1:46 4/5 set by Spend a Buck in 1985 and equaled by Jolie's Halo in 1992.
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