OCEANPORT, N.J. — Ten minutes ‘til seven Saturday morning and hundreds are streaming through the gates at Monmouth Park, same as the day before. Lines of cars are converging behind them. Silver Hondas, blue BMWs crawling past buildings on the edge of Fort Monmouth the government stopped using in 2011.
Soon they’ll all be inside, thousands in the grandstand and lining the railings. They all want a glimpse of the greatest racehorse alive. Most have their phones out, others Canons or Nikons with lenses meant to truly capture the magnificence of American Pharoah.
There’s hope here at this 145-year-old track, which has a few times in the past decade only narrowly escaped the same fate as the neighboring military base, that the Triple Crown winner is saving horse racing. For at least this weekend there’s reason to believe. People have shown up to see the bay colt who, since spring, has won the Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
Sunday, at 5:52 p.m. on NBC, he goes for the $1.75 million purse at the 48th Haskell Invitational. It’s a premier event in the sport, a notch below the Triple Crown races, but there’s little reason for American Pharoah to be here other than as a promotional tool.
The son of Pioneerof The Nile and Littleprincessemma, grandson of Empire Maker and Yankee Gentleman could be retired, working at nothing but continuing his bloodline. Someday he’ll sire the most coveted thoroughbreds in the world, but for now owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert will let him run. They are thrilled to see general public continue to show interest in the sport when normally, this time of year, they have none. They hope it continues into next year and the next.
The Yankees and Mets are in the midst of playoff pushes while the Giants and Jets are opening training camp. Nobody is talking about that. If Bruce Springsteen started playing an impromptu show over on the Asbury Park Boardwalk right now the hysteria couldn’t match this.
A boy in a LeBron James jersey stands on a chair and his tiptoes, getting as tall as possible to see the brown horse trotting his way.
“Is that him?”
It’s not. He climbs down and waits some more.
Another big, brown beauty heads to the course. This one in yellow and blue argyle. This is American Pharoah. They stand and stretch and click their cameras. The champ only did one quick lap the morning before and there were a few murmurs of disappointment. This time he’ll put on a show, slowing for pictures in front of the grandstand before taking off for his last exercise before the race, galloping a full lap, then returning to the comforts of the barn.
The people head back toward their cars. One yuppie couple lingers around the paddock, chatting.
“People really love him, huh?”
“I think we’re looking for somebody we can all get behind, right? Our leaders are terrible. Selfish. Both sides.”
“It’s why people are going crazy for Trump. Just give us somebody different.”
“Pharoah’s better than Trump.”
“Yes, absolutely! American Pharoah for president, 2016!”
They are expecting at least 60,000 to attend the Haskell. It might be the second biggest sporting event in New Jersey history, behind only Super Bowl XLIX.
But will anyone care by Monday? Will any of these people come back to the track when American Pharoah is gone? Those are the questions most watching with a vested interest are afraid to ask. They want to bask in this. For horse racing, this might be as good as it ever gets.
After all, Mayweather-Pacquiao was a major event just a few months ago, but we as a nation we didn’t suddenly rediscover our passion for boxing.
Irish Pharaoh, American Pharoah’s full brother, could be in the 2018 Kentucky Derby field. He may race against Irish Pulpit, a baby colt out of the same parents as California Chrome, the 2014 Derby and Preakness winner.
The thoroughbred community is buzzing about a race still three years away. Can it keep our attention until then?