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American Pharoah needs to beat older horses to enhance legacy

American Pharoah runs his way to the Triple

The preparation to make him a Triple Crown winner begins on the backstretch and at Belmont Park, the backstretch is a community unto itself. (Credit: Newsday Staff)

His name will be revered forever, and his sterling silver trophy never can be tarnished. Yet to be ranked among the all-time greats, there still is more for American Pharoah to accomplish.

Aside from Bob Baffert, Billy Turner is the only living trainer of a Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew in 1977. American Pharoah has made a strong impression on him, but Turner told Newsday he wants to see him take on bigger challenges. That means stepping out of the 3-year-old division, because dominating his own age group again won't add much to Pharoah's cachet.

"In the Belmont, everybody else was just scrubbing along trying to keep up with him," Turner said. "They looked like kids' ponies. You can't take anything away from him, because he totally dominated those horses.

"American Pharoah belongs in the conversation with all the other Triple Crown horses, but the only way he can improve his reputation is by facing older horses."

He could do that in the $1-million, 1¼-mile Pacific Classic on Aug. 22 at Del Mar, which is Baffert's summer base. The Pacific Classic looks like a long shot for Pharoah's return, however, because the main options are two races restricted to 3-year-olds: the $1.25-million, 1¼-mile Travers Stakes on Aug. 29 at Saratoga and the $1-million, 11/8-mile Haskell on Aug. 2 at Monmouth Park.

On June 13, the night American Pharoah was paraded at Churchill Downs, owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat all but guaranteed he would go in the Haskell, which Baffert has won a record seven times. On Thursday, Zayat, who is very active on social media, reversed himself, tweeting: "Right now Saratoga is in the lead. Ahead of Haskell."

In a phone interview on Friday with Newsday, Monmouth Park president Bob Kulina said he had just spoken with Baffert, one of their many conversations since the Belmont. Kulina said Baffert told him he has no specific plans for Pharoah's return and that Monmouth remains an option.

Baffert always says he "likes to go with his gut," so it seems unlikely he's zeroing in on races that are six weeks and 10 weeks down the road.

"I don't think there's been a definite decision made just yet," Kulina said. "There are so many variables in racing, and you just have to let it play out."

The Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland is Pharoah's ultimate goal. He might face older horses in the autumn before that, but maybe not.

Turner, 75, a New York guy since the '70s, said he'd prefer to see Pharoah at Saratoga on Aug. 8. "If he ran against older horses in the Whitney,'' he said, "that would really be something."

D. Wayne Lukas, 79, has trained a record 14 winners of Triple Crown races. He said you can't overestimate the significance of "capturing the imagination of the American people" by ending the Triple Crown drought 37 years after Affirmed's victory.

Pharoah's quest and charisma united 90,000 at Belmont Park, which dazzled NBC analyst Jerry Bailey. The Hall of Fame jockey and Empire Maker were booed for ruining Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid in the 2003 Belmont. There was universal joy June 6 in Elmont.

"What was amazing to me," Bailey said, "was that just about everybody through the length of the stretch had their arms up and were cheering."

NBC's Bob Neumeier marveled over seeing "hard-bitten horseplayers crying tears of joy, and some journalists did, too."

Lukas agrees with Turner that Pharoah must leave his age group to seek greater glory. "I think he's going to have to beat older horses," Lukas told Newsday. "And if he does that with authority, he'll be able to be ranked among the best of all time."

Lukas emphasized that American Pharoah's triumphant spring didn't come over a weak group. "He went through the preps and the Triple Crown against some very good 3-year-olds," he said. "I think this will be viewed as a very good crop."

Comparing athletes, human and equine, from different eras is tricky. In the Internet era, the rush to judgment is instant, with an opinion's value often judged by how many times it's retweeted. Conversely, NBC's Randy Moss warns against the traditionalists' bias for "the good old days."

"We have a tendency to romanticize the great horses of the past," Moss said. "I think what American Pharoah has accomplished as a 3-year-old deserves to be placed in the same conversation as all-time greats such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew."

Like those immortals, Pharoah was voted 2-year-old champion. His 2015 campaign -- 5-for-5 by an average of 5-plus lengths -- is right up there with them, too.

What Secretariat did during the 1973 classics can't be topped -- track records in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, in which his 31-length margin and time of 2:24 still seem impossible 42 years later. It's easy to forget he ran third in the Wood Memorial and lost two races after the Triple Crown, the Woodward and the Whitney.

The undefeated Slew finished fourth in his first race after the Belmont, the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. Moss rates Pharoah's 5½-length triumph in 2:26.65, the sixth-fastest Belmont and second-fastest by a Triple Crown winner, over Slew's "Test of the Champion" (4 lengths, 2:29.60, muddy track). So if the 12th immortal goes 3-for-3 before heading to stud next year, his legacy will be exalted.

Lukas predicted American Pharoah "would win easily" in the Belmont. He expects him to go undefeated for the rest of the year.

"I don't think he'll have any trouble doing that," he said. "If they ran the Breeders' Cup Classic tomorrow, he'd be the deserving favorite, because I don't see any older horse capable of beating him."

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