It’s like dissecting a frog from the taxidermy shop.
The post-Haskell press conference took the better part of a half-hour, and if you cut it open and pick it apart looking for something visceral regarding American Pharoah’s future, you come up empty.
We don’t know anything more today about the possibility of the Triple Crown winner running at Saratoga Race Course — or anywhere, for that matter — than we did a second before the Monmouth Park starting gate opened for Sunday’s Haskell Invitational.
Pharoah did his thing, rolling to another seemingly effortless victory, then trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat did their thing.
The horse is just a relentless piece of animal, making the spectacular look efficient and routine.
He beat Keen Ice by 2 1⁄4 lengths, but easily could’ve threatened the stakes record margin of victory (93⁄4) set by Verrazano two years ago and/or the stakes record time of 1:47 if jockey Victor Espinoza hadn’t dialed him down in the final strides. They ripped through the first half-mile in just over 46 seconds, and Baffert said Pharoah looked like he was doing it in 48 and change.
Clearly, the Triple Crown whirlwind and subsequent layoff since the June 6 Belmont Stakes have not dulled the gleam coming off this beautiful beast.
After the Haskell, Baffert and Zayat easily could’ve told the New York Racing Association and Saratoga fans what they wanted (or didn’t want) to hear, but that got dialed down, too. Like, all the way down, to zero.
Asked specifically about the likelihood of the Travers for Pharoah, Baffert answered, “We have to get him home and see how he bounces out of it. There are a lot of options out there. We want that horse, every time I lead him up here, I want to feel good about it, that we’re doing the right thing.”
So stick your scalpel in that baby and go to work. Just don’t cut yourself.
The day after Pharoah won the Belmont, Baffert used two words to describe Saratoga on Travers Day — “weird” and “quirky.”
He meant that Saratoga can be a tough read if you haven’t run in the Jim Dandy, and the track has a well-documented history of jumping up and biting a seemingly invincible horse (See: Secretariat. Smell: Onion).
If you’re really digging around for some shred of hope out of the post-Haskell comments, take a stab at this one:
“I have a responsibility to the horse,” Baffert said. “Look, I’m not worried about Saratoga or the surface or anything like that. As long as Pharoah is on top of his game, that’s my main concern. Only he can tell me, from watching him work.”
OK, we have something. Let’s get this tissue sample on a slide under a microscope and see what it is.
“. . . I’m not worried about Saratoga or the surface or anything like that.”
Then, in response to a question about running Pharoah against older horses, he said, “A lot of it is timing, spacing. If there weren’t any 3-year-old races left, then he would run with the olders. But it doesn’t really come into play.”
We’re onto something here. There are still some big stakes races restricted to 3-year-olds . . . and the Travers is one of them!
But upon further examination, these samples were corrupted.
“I know when I get home, Del Mar, they’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on me [to race there], too,” Baffert said with a chuckle. “They’re right in my backyard. One thing about it, Mr. Zayat told me, ‘You don’t run him unless he is 100 percent. Don’t worry about anything. You do right by the horse.’ ”
The day after the Belmont, I put the odds of Pharoah running at Saratoga at 50-1. I’ll reluctantly scale it back to 30-1 for the simple reason that Espinoza did well to preserve the horse at the end of the Haskell. This race probably didn’t take much out of him.
So coming back in 27 days for the Aug. 29 Travers shouldn’t be an impediment in and of itself for a horse who won three Triple Crown races in a span of five weeks.
But that’s really thin, as is NYRA’s Travers purse bump from $1.25 million to $1.6 million if Pharoah runs. That move seems designed to deflect accusations that NYRA isn’t trying hard enough to get the horse. If Pharoah runs at Saratoga, it won’t be because of this purse hike.
Baffert occasionally uses Onion’s upset of Secretariat in the 1973 Whitney as a reference point for Saratoga, and Zayat brought it up again on Sunday.
“I remember Bob telling me that it pained him when he saw Onion beat Secretariat, and I said, ‘Who?’ ” the owner said. “He always tells me that, and it’s always in his memory. That does not mean that we’re excluding Saratoga. Just FYI. We have tremendous respect for Saratoga. The horse will tell him.”
“It just means anything can happen,” Baffert interjected, which ought to leave Saratoga fans with that hollowed-out feeling.