Bob Baffert has American Pharoah on track for Monmouth victory

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Triple Crown winner American Pharoah arrives at the Atlantic City airport en route to the Haskell Invitational.

A WEEK AFTER the Belmont Stakes, Bob Baffert joked about his "celebrity" status following a few days back home in California.

"I went back to anonymity," he said. "Walked up to Chipotle the other day and nobody knew who I was. My time is just about up."

Two weeks ago, the trainer of the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 said he missed the attention.

"I'm going through Triple Crown blues now," he said. "I want a fourth leg."

Well, the quiet time is over. Baffert can go back to being a celebrity. His time is not yet up. American Pharoah was flown into Atlantic City International Airport from his California base on Wednesday afternoon and received a police escort to Monmouth Park. The colt was made the 1-5 morning line favorite yesterday for Sunday's $1.75 million Haskell Invitational. The 70-year-old track, only a few miles west of the Atlantic Ocean on the North Jersey shore, will be the place to see a cultural phenomenon, a horse that has cut through the sporting clutter.

Media credentials requests are double a typical Haskell Day. Nobody knows how many people will show, because there is unlimited general admission, but 60,000 is considered the low end.

Owner Ahmed Zayat and Baffert agreed to parade American Pharoah at Churchill Downs the week after the Belmont Stakes and then again at Santa Anita Park. They understood instinctively what the public wanted.

"I really enjoy sharing him with everybody, because everybody wants to get close to greatness," Baffert said.

Julia Roberts showed up at the Santa Anita barn to see the horse. Getting your picture taken with American Pharoah has been a rite of summer. In the week after the race, Baffert figures, he signed at least a thousand of those uncashed $2 win tickets from the Belmont.

Before heading off to New York for the final leg of the Triple Crown and knowing their son Bode was about to exceed the limit of 21 days of missed school, Baffert and his wife Jill asked the Catholic school officials for dispensation.

"The headmaster sent Jill a text saying, 'He has my blessing,' " Baffert said.

Of course, he did. By June 6, everybody was an American Pharoah fan.

It was Baffert's fourth chance at the Triple Crown.

"I was so relieved I was given a great horse and didn't mess it up," Baffert said.

Horse racing is a sport of mistakes. Trying to avoid those mistakes is so difficult, because, in the end, you are dealing with high-strung, 1,000-pound animals. The very best of the breed have the rare combination of talent and attitude. Baffert always talks about how kind American Pharoah is, how the horse is relaxed, no matter the situation, how he will let strangers pet him.

"He's a baby, but a badass at the same time," Baffert said. "That's what makes him special."

Horse racing, perhaps more than any sport because the fans are also participants at the betting windows, is filled with nonbelievers. Nothing is ever quite good enough. This Triple Crown, however, was different. It was actually unifying. Everybody left Belmont Park smiling.

"So many people are so happy for that horse and the way he made them feel," Baffert said. "It's like a Disney story."

It has some of that.

"He's so sweet and kind," Baffert said. "It's going to be really tough to see him go, because he's a big pet. He's like Mister Ed. I keep waiting for him to talk."

American Pharoah won't talk, but he will run Sunday, and then the plan is at least one more race before his scheduled finale in the Oct. 31 $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.

"Every race could be his last race," Baffert said. "He's got to be at the top."

If one little thing goes wrong in a race or during training, it is over. The colt's breeding rights have been sold and the farm holding those rights stands to make a windfall starting next year, because the horse's stud fee will be outsized in relation to what it paid Zayat.

"With this horse, there is a lot more added pressure," Baffert said.

For now, American Pharoah races on. If all goes well Sunday, the colt could run in the Aug. 29 Travers at Saratoga. The owner would clearly like that. Baffert seems less keen on the Travers.

Only last year, the Baffert-trained Bayern won the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx, setting a track record. The trainer said the Sept. 19 Pa. Derby is definitely "on the radar" for American Pharoah.

Baffert owns the Haskell, having won it seven times. I wrote a few years back that Baffert only wins the race when he enters it. This is obviously the best horse he has ever brought to Monmouth and the first time a Triple Crown winner will run at one of America's great summer tracks.

Baffert has two goals the rest of the year: get American Pharoah to the finish line safely and without losing.

The onetime quarter horse trainer never imagined his success in the thoroughbred game.

"It was like going from coaching a T-ball game to being the Yankees manager," he said.

Now, he has to take all he has learned and finish off a great story with a happy ending in a sport that rarely does happy endings.

"There's, like, a Google map in my head now," Baffert said. "You just keep getting more information."

His first Haskell win was in 2001 with an undertrained Point Given who barely won. American Pharoah has been trained hard for this race. The trainer is taking no chances.

That Triple Crown is forever, but what happens next will be the final impression. The previous Triple Crown was six years before the first Breeders' Cup, so American Pharoah is the first horse with a chance at what is being called the "Grand Slam" - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes and the Classic.

No Derby winner has won the Classic since 1990. It is just so hard to keep the best horses going for an entire year. American Pharoah has been perfect in 2015. The quest to keep the Triple Crown winner that way resumes just before 6 p.m. on Sunday.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com