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American Pharoah returns to racing Sunday in Haskell

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the paddock at Monmouth Park Friday morning. American Pharoah is the favorite for Sunday's Haskell Invitational.

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the paddock at Monmouth Park Friday morning. American Pharoah is the favorite for Sunday’s Haskell Invitational.

(Bill Denver / Equi-Photo via Associated Press)

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is leaving nothing to chance as American Pharoah returns to competition for the first time since the colt became the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.

Baffert worked racing’s long-awaited superstar six times in preparation for the $1.75 million Haskell Invitational on Sunday at Monmouth Park, including three drills in a demanding 10-day span. He also promises to consume what he believes is a lucky hot dog at Max’s Famous Hot Dogs in Long Branch, N.J., a few hours before the field of eight enters the starting gate for the 1 1/8-mile contest.

Whatever Baffert’s key to success — he swears by the stop at Max’s — he is expected to extend his record with an eighth victory in the 48-year history of the Haskell. He exudes optimism that American Pharoah will deliver on his billing as a prohibitive 1-5 favorite.

“He’s just holding his form, which is pretty incredible for a horse that has been through what he has been through,” Baffert said. “He’s getting stronger. He’s maturing.”

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American Pharoah flashed the brilliance that allowed him to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a span of five captivating weeks when he produced a pair of six-furlong bullet works at Del Mar. He blazed six furlongs in 1:11 2/5 seconds on July 18, then covered the same ground in 1:11 five days later.

Ed Plesa Jr., who trains 15-1 Haskell longshot Mr. Jordan, expects American Pharoah to be as formidable as he was when he romped by seven lengths in the slop at the Preakness and became the 12th Triple Crown champion with an emphatic 5 1/2-length score in the Belmont Stakes for Victor Espinoza, his regular rider. He gained an early lead and was never threatened in both races.

“He shows no chinks in his armor coming into this race,” Plesa said.

Previous Triple Crown winners proved to be vulnerable after they completed the historic sweep. Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) were a combined five for 11 the remainder of their 3-year-old campaigns, reflecting the grueling nature of the road to the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown itself. The legendary Secretariat was upset twice in the second half of his 3-year-old season, by Onion in the Whitney and by Prove Out in the Woodward.

That history encouraged Wayne Catalano to enter 30-1 Top Clearance, even though that colt did not earn his first victory until June 13 and will make his stakes debut. “If you are going to take a shot at a horse like that,” Catalano said of American Pharoah, “now is the time.”

But it appears there is no good time to oppose the bay son of former Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof The Nile. He has rattled off seven consecutive victories — all but one in Grade 1 races — since a fifth-place finish in his debut last Aug. 9 at Del Mar.

American Pharoah has already banked $4,530,300 for Zayat Stables. He must overcome competition best described as suspect if he is to give Baffert his fifth Haskell win in six years (no other trainer owns more than three Haskell wins). Upstart, the second choice in the morning line at 6-1, makes his first start since a last-place finish in the Kentucky Derby.

Competitive Edge, at 8-1, must rebound from a dismal sixth-place showing in the Woody Stephens and attempts this distance for the first time amid questions about his stamina. Keen Ice (12-1) was third in the Belmont Stakes, and he possesses a closing style on a Monmouth surface that typically favors speed.

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Still, Baffert is wary. He understands all too well the many ways in which a superior horse can be beaten. “We have him ready for a battle, just in case,” he said.

With owner Ahmed Zayat having already reached an agreement with Coolmore for the breeding rights to American Pharoah, the Haskell probably will provide one of the last looks at the colt with the misspelled name and abbreviated tail. He is so popular that several thousand fans streamed into Monmouth Park merely to watch him gallop the last couple of mornings.

sports@latimes.com


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