OCEANPORT, N.J. - The sound of fans running toward American Pharoah spooked the Triple Crown winner as he headed toward Monmouth Park's paddock before Friday's first race. The colt bucked and reared up near a 4-foot black metal fence in the tunnel leading from the main track. When Georgie Alvarez tried to control him, the exercise rider slipped and fell. Neither horse nor rider was hurt.
Assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes reportedly smiled as he looked at Alvarez and groom Eduardo Luna, each of whom was leading Pharoah with a leather shank.
The "schooling" session to familiarize the colt with new surroundings before Sunday's $1.75-million Haskell Invitational went on without further incident. The Haskell will be American Pharoah's first race at Monmouth.
There were conflicting reports from eyewitnesses on what else may have disturbed Pharoah. One blamed the unfamiliar sound of flip-flops echoing on cement. Others said the yelling of charging children and the start of raucous music upset the usually unflappable colt, who is sensitive to noise. During races, American Pharoah wears cotton earplugs. He was wearing them Friday, according to Justin Zayat, racing manager for his father, Ahmed, the colt's owner.
Before the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert said American Pharoah became agitated on the walk from the backstretch, where he passed thousands of screaming fans. Baffert said the colt did not have his "A game" on the first Saturday in May, when he won the Derby by only a length.
People stood five deep around Monmouth's walking ring at 12:30 Friday, when American Pharoah emerged from the tunnel into the sunshine with Alvarez, Luna and Barnes. Few were aware that Pharoah briefly had become agitated, and he seemed his usual calm self as they applauded and took photos. He stepped along a surface of wood chips while circling the walking ring. Then he was taken into the enclosed saddling area after the six-horse field of $5,000 claimers left it.
By shortly after 1 o'clock, American Pharoah was back at trainer Kelly Breen's Barn 12.
Five-and-a-half hours earlier, a few thousand fans and about 40 media members turned out to watch the superstar gallop about 13/8 miles on the main track. After four days, the extreme humidity was gone, although the temperature was near 80 at 7:30 a.m.
"The track was a little on the heavy side from the rain yesterday," Barnes said. "He likes to gallop and he handled it well.'"
Monmouth's parking lots were unusually full at 7 a.m. on a Friday. Pharoah is a powerful drawing card, and he's expected to attract more than 60,000 on Sunday.
Barnes was asked for his reaction to the turnout for the champion's routine gallop. "That was wonderful, wasn't it?" he said. "A large crowd, very good to see."
Fortunately, the enthusiasm of a handful of Pharoahites later on had no negative consequences.