After watching Triple Crown winner American Pharoah cruise effortlessly through a 7-furlong workout in 1:23.20 yesterday morning at Del Mar, owner Ahmed Zayat leaned into a TVG microphone and said, "Saratoga, here we come!''
Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert agreed that as long as the colt comes out of the breeze in top shape Monday, he'll run in Saturday's 1 1/4-mile Travers Stakes. The New York Racing Association will raise the purse from $1.25 million to $1.6 million if he starts.
"We needed to see something positive like this,'' Baffert said. "We've had Saratoga on double-secret alert, so as long as he shows me he's well . . . We have his bags packed, he's ready to go. We'll see how he comes out of this.
"If I had a ticket for Saratoga, I wouldn't sell it.''
The Associated Press reported that Zayat said the horse will arrive at Saratoga on Wednesday. The draw for post positions is Tuesday at 5 p.m.
His latest brilliant work showed Pharoah is holding the form that produced eight consecutive stakes wins. He and regular workout rider Martin Garcia broke off many lengths behind two horses on the backstretch. Nearing the finish line, Pharoah glided past them easily and continued strongly around the turn.
"He was more aggressive today,'' Baffert said. "We wanted to see where his energy level is -- to be sure that he still has it. It's incredible that he does after all this.''
An estimated crowd of 2,000 arose early to watch the world's most popular horse practice for the 146th Midsummer Derby. "So many people were here,'' Zayat said. "My wife and I looked at each other and almost choked up. This is what the sport is all about.
"This is the horse of a lifetime. We are so blessed. He's one of a kind, like a pal, an unbelievable, lovable person. He's America's horse.''
Unlike almost everybody, Saratoga is not Baffert's favorite track. He's 1-for-5 in the Travers and hasn't won a stakes there since 2012. He's leery of its occasionally quirky surface, and shipping cross country twice in four weeks is a concern. After Pharoah returned from New Jersey on Aug. 3, Baffert said he was "wiped out" by the heat, humidity and the flight.
Among Pharoah's challengers are Texas Red, Frosted and Keen Ice, who have been training at Saratoga. American Pharoah has overpowered them all, but they have home advantage at a track known as "The Graveyard of Champions."
Yet as Baffert told the Albany Times Union: "I've been looking for an excuse not to come, and I couldn't find one.''