The question on every racing fan’s mind is this: Will Triple Crown champ (ah, that feels good to write) American Pharoah taste defeat in the Haskell Invitational this weekend?

No.

Look, I hate to be a killjoy and I’m always supportive of trying to beat a 1-5 favorite, but the odds quite literally seem stacked in American Pharoah’s favor.

To begin with, there are not a lot of dedicated early-speed types signed up for Sunday’s Monmouth Park feature. The projected early speed ration (ESR) of the Haskell is a moderate -5. Sure, Upstart has shown some early lick (median ESR of -6), but he’s never led at the first call in any of his races.

On the other hand, Nona’s Boy went wire-to-wire in his latest, but that race was on the turf and yielded an uninspiring 0 ESR. Competitive Edge and Mr. Jordan also seem more comfortable near the front, but they too typically generate subpar ESRs.

 

This leaves American Pharoah in the proverbial cat bird seat. He can set the pace should the connections desire or he can stalk what figures to be a very reasonable pace over a track surface that is traditionally speed-favoring, especially when it gets wet (witness Rachel Alexandra’s devastating victory in 2009).

If there is an upset on Sunday, I think Mr. Jordan will be the one to spring it. I love his effort sans blinkers in the Grade III Pegasus and I think it may represent a new level of performance for the son of Kantharos.

Regardless of who one likes in the Haskell, I strongly suggest — as I always do in these situations — to watch for a negative show pool and bet accordingly. As I surmised on my latest podcast, Monmouth Park employs net pool pricing, which means that playing against American Pharoah to show could easily produce payoffs in excess of the minimum $2.10 should the champ finish in-the-money — and far more than that should Pharoah fold in his comeback attempt (like fellow Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew did in 1977).

A Stroll Down Memory Lane: My Visit to Anthony Downs

Back in 2008, my brother and I took a road trip to Antnony, Kansas to — of all things — go to the racetrack.

Unfortunately, Anthony Downs is no more. Like so many racing venues, it became a casualty of economics and disinterest.

But the day I spent there remind me of why I fell in love with the Sport of Kings in the first place…

Of all the months on the racing calendar, few are anticipated like July, when racing fans flock to summer hot spots such as Saratoga and Del Mar like hangovers to a happy hour.

To me, though, July is special for a different reason — the beginning of the fair meets. Sure, it’s fun watching millionaires compete against other millionaires for the right to say, “my horse is faster than your horse,” but it’s even more satisfying to watch those who think NetJets is a brand of shoes trot out their best mules and vie for the title of Best A… well, you get the picture.

Hence, while my handicapping brethren were analyzing Kenucky-bred bluebloods and basking in the glory of Saratoga’s trees or Del Mar’s ocean breeze last weekend, I was busy trying to determine whether or not Miss Casey Baker could stretch her speed around three turns in the 6 ½-furlong feature at Anthony Downs on Sunday night.

Located in Anthony, Kansas (population 2,200 and dwindling), Anthony Downs runs a six-day meet, Friday-Sunday, July 11-13 and July 18-20. In existence since 1904 — when Cy Young was still alive and pitching and not just an award — the track offers a unique brand of pari-mutuel fare.

“This is the only place in the world to watch racehorses and mules and then, every other race, greyhounds,” noted Anthony Downs’ President Dan Bird, obviously sensing my confusion at the sight of tiny barking horses being paraded about the infield.

It is thanks to Bird that Anthony Downs has remained alive and vibrant in a town that has not. Amidst a boarded up library, school, outdoor theatre, and other businesses, the 104-year-old track serves as a reminder of what Anthony once was and what Bird believes it can be again.

“We’re waiting on backward Kansas,” he sighed. “They have already passed the slot machines at the racetracks, [but] they’re very slow in working that through the state [legislature]. When casinos finally are built, I have one or two that want to sponsor … Anthony Downs. And so we’re waiting patiently and struggling to get to the point where that money starts coming in.”

The 11th race begins and track announcer Larry Gilmore calls the field home. As expected, Miss Casey Baker wins in a romp — although I miss the exacta when Fairmont Rougheon rallies past Wallstreetgangster for the place.

I smile anyway.

Looking at the crowd, I realize that, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the betting that matters, nor the purse size, nor the number of runners (Anthony’s races were limited to six starters during the meet because, as Bird said, “that’s all the jockey’s we have”) — what counts is having a good time.

“Fun,” shrugged Bird, “is all we’ve got to offer.”

It’s quite enough.