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American Pharoah a class act in more than just racing

Preakness Stakes winner American Pharoah stops his morning

Preakness Stakes winner American Pharoah stops his morning walk to check out the crowd around the stakes barn, Sunday, May 17, 2015 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. Photo Credit: AP / Garry Jones

The morning after the Kentucky Derby, American Pharoah emerged from his stall to meet his public. Unlike many top thoroughbreds -- and quite a few average humans who have more issues than "Meet the Press" when dealing with people -- the Pharoah was at ease in a potentially stressful situation.

Bob Baffert gave him his favorite treat, small carrots, not much of a reward for winning the world's most famous race. The Pharoah didn't endanger Baffert's fingers, nibbling his mini veggies like a perfect gentleman. What happened next was memorable.

The platinum-haired trainer held the bay colt's shank and led him around as fans petted him like an oversized Labrador retriever. He seemed curious and pleased with all the attention. Very unusual, because this genetically engineered breed is born to run, not mingle.

"The thing about him is he's the sweetest horse of this caliber that I've ever been around," Baffert said. "I mean, you feed him carrots and he's just like a pet. He's spoiled to death. Usually they're like athletes, they want to get it on. But he's very intelligent and just the sweetest horse.

"He's all class and very mellow. I think Bode could train him."

Yet even the most tolerant creatures have their limits, and American Pharoah reached his during the manic hour before the Derby. On the half-mile walk from the backstretch to the overflowing paddock, thousands of screaming people, many in altered states, got to him.

"They got him really stirred up. He got a little hot, and I had some anxious moments in the paddock," Baffert said. "He dragged the groom all the way up there, and I didn't like what I saw. Finally, he shut it down and cooled off."

As he showed the next day, American Pharoah is fine with people as long as they don't act like animals.

He dealt brilliantly last Saturday with another kind of adversity, a driving rainstorm complete with lightning and thunder. He took control of the Preakness early and glided to a seven-length win on a track with a river flowing along the rail. "His sire is Pioneer of the Nile,'" Baffert said, "and he was floating through the Nile."

So for a record fourth time, Baffert has a chance at the Triple Crown, which has gone unclaimed for 37 years. American Pharoah will need everything he has to turn back a herd of well-rested opponents ready to ambush him June 6 in the 1-mile Belmont Stakes.

Baffert nearly got the sweep with Silver Charm in 1997 and missed by a nose with Real Quiet a year later. In 2002, front-runner War Emblem stumbled and was eliminated leaving the gate. The 62-year-old Hall of Famer has nothing to prove after winning 11 Triple Crown events, 11 Breeders' Cup races, six Haskells and two Dubai World Cups. He's doing his best to low-key it, but you know that someone as hypercompetitive as Baffert would love to join Billy Turner (Seattle Slew, 1977) as the only living trainers with racing's most coveted trophy.

"I know how difficult the Belmont is," Baffert said. "We've seen a lot of great horses go down, like Smarty Jones, Big Brown, Silver Charm and Real Quiet. I learned from my other horses -- what I did, what I could have done. You always think about what could have happened. I just don't want to go up there with a tired horse.

"I'm hoping for a fast track. Sometimes the track there gets very deep. It could be weird up there. Give me the same track that Secretariat had.''

Pharaoh takes stroll. American Pharoah was on the track Thursday for the first time since the Preakness. After jogging a lap in seven minutes around Churchill Downs, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes told, "I saw what I wanted to see."


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