OCEANPORT, N.J. - Dale Romans isn't kidding himself, because he knows exactly what he's up against. For the third time, he'll send out Keen Ice to challenge American Pharoah, even though the first two didn't turn out very well.
His leggy, long-striding colt (12-1 morning line) will try to upset the Triple Crown champion Sunday in the $1.75-million, 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Keen Ice, a 1-for-9 deep closer, was seventh after a troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby and a distant third in the Belmont Stakes.
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"It's sort of like being the guy in the poster who's being dunked on," Romans said, "but at least you're in the game. This is the best race of the weekend with the most money, so you've got to come here and try."
Track oddsmaker Brad Thomas made Pharoah a 1-5 favorite, and chances are he'll be 1-10, or maybe even the minimum 1-20, when the gates open at approximately 5:52 p.m. Bob Baffert said he expects his horse of a lifetime to run big and extend the trainer's Haskell record to eight victories. The Hall of Famer is wise enough not to make any guarantees.
"What makes him a great horse is he can sustain his form for a long period of time," Baffert said. "I don't like to use the term superhorse, because they all get beat."
That's happened only once to the first Triple Crown hero since 1978, in Pharoah's debut last August at Del Mar. Oddly, a horse known for his even temperament lost his cool in the paddock and post parade and finished fifth, beaten 9 1/4 lengths. Since then, he's run off seven consecutive stakes triumphs to become a mainstream obsession and the idol of millions.
Pharoah's versatile style makes him doubly tough. He's equally comfortable stalking the pace, as he did in the Derby, or setting it, which was jockey Victor Espinoza's strategy in the Preakness and the Belmont.
"I don't think it matters if you get in front of him," Romans said. "I think he might be even better when he has a target."
Baffert's assistant trainer, Jimmy Barnes, expects Espinoza to play the break and go from there. "There definitely is speed in the race," Barnes said, "but how it will end up developing, it's hard to say. He's definitely not a one-dimensional horse. We just want a clean trip."
Besides Keen Ice, five other seemingly overmatched 3-year-olds will take on Pharoah -- Upstart (6-1), Competitive Edge (8-1) and extreme long shots Mr. Jordan, Top Clearance and Dontbetwithbruno. "Handicapping it, it looks like we can't beat American Pharoah," said Romans, the 2012 Eclipse Award winner. "Nobody's going to beat this horse if he's at his best. But on paper, Onion couldn't beat Secretariat [in 1973], but he did."
Monmouth announced a $750,000 purse increase Wednesday, boosting place money to $350,000. So second here is a major score, not the first loser.
Romans said he's not conceding the race to Pharoah, who hasn't run since his 5 1/2-length Belmont runaway June 6.
"We see things happen to big favorites all the time," he said. "Maybe he won't be at his best, and if not, I don't want it to be a physical problem. I never went into a race planning to lose. If we do finish second, it won't be by design."
NYRA woos Pharoah. The New York Racing Association announced Saturday that if American Pharoah runs in the Travers Stakes on Aug. 29 at Saratoga, it will raise the purse from $1.25 million to $1.6 million. The winner's share would increase $210,000 to $960,000.