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Triple Crown winner American Pharoah victorious at Haskell Invitational

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Triple Crown winner American Pharoah victorious at Haskell Invitational

OCEANPORT, N.J. (AP) — A slight nudge was all it took for American Pharoah to seize control of the Haskell Invitational. And when Victor Espinoza asked, the majestic colt delivered an encore performance in his first race since winning the Triple Crown.

"This horse, he just keeps bringing it," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's just a great horse."

With a record crowd of 60,983 cheering him on Sunday at Monmouth Park, American Pharoah came out of the final turn with a clear lead and cruised to a 2 1/4-length victory while Espinoza barely moved a muscle.

"He ran like a champ," Espinoza said.

After winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and first in 37 years, American Pharoah's return was greatly anticipated. Fifty-seven days after the Belmont, the 3-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile looked better than ever in his eighth consecutive victory.

"That was nerve-racking," Baffert said after his eighth win in the Haskell, five more than any other trainer. "I was getting pretty nervous."

Sent off at odds of 1-10, American Pharoah became the shortest price winner in Haskell history, returning $2.20 for a $2 win bet. He paid $2.10 to place and $2.10 to show.

Keen Ice rallied for second at 18-1 odds, followed by Upstart, Competitive Edge, Top Clearance, Dontbetwithbruno and Mr. Jordan. The winning time for the 1 1/8-mile race was 1:47.95 — 95th hundreds of a second off the Haskell record.

American Pharoah's next start is now the biggest question in racing. There's no answer yet, but options include the Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 29, the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 19, and the Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Sept. 26.

"No clue," owner Ahmed Zayat said when asked about his colt's next race. "We're going to enjoy this moment."

If all goes according to plan, American Pharoah will run his final race in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, on Oct. 31. And then, he's headed down the road to the breeding shed at Coolmore's Ashford Stud.

A few minutes after rocker Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" blared over the speakers as the horses walked onto the track, American Pharoah broke well from post No. 4. But it was Competitive Edge who took the lead. Espinoza kept his horse in second until the far turn. And then, American Pharoah took off and was all alone in the stretch.

The final margin was deceptive because Espinoza never asked American Pharoah to run any harder than necessary.

"It was pretty easy," Espinoza said. "For me the key was just coming out of there running. I knew that other horse would want to take the lead so I sat back just a little bit. I never like to go head and head with another horse so I sat back maybe half a length behind. He did everything by himself. It was pretty easy, pretty impressive."

American Pharoah followed many of his Triple Crown colleagues by winning his first start after three grueling races in five weeks. Of the 11 others, seven won in their return and one, Count Fleet, was retired after the 1943 Belmont with an injury.

American Pharoah opened his career with a loss before reeling off eight in a row — seven of them Grade 1 races. With the $1.1 million payday in the Haskell, the son of Pioneerof the Nile's career earnings soared to $5.6 million.

As he was led back to the winner's circle, the cheers continued.

"I couldn't believe the crowd, how loud it was," an emotional Baffert said, his voice breaking. "It was a great crowd. I love bringing my horses here. Thank you for being behind Pharoah the whole way."

The long day at Monmouth Park began with gates opening at 9 a.m., and fans strolling into the Jersey Shore track after waiting in line for hours, some since 5 a.m. But it wasn't until late afternoon until the place looked packed.

When American Pharoah was led into the paddock, the crowd stood 15 deep around the railing, straining to get a cellphone photo of the colt. And the horse came through with a truly remarkable performance.

"It's very rare that I'm speechless, but I am extremely proud," Zayat said. And the fans loved it, except for a moment when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared in the winner's circle and was loudly booed. "I couldn't be happier that this is happening in the great state of New Jersey. This is a superstar. He has touched everybody's heart."

The Haskell win gave American Pharoah an expense-paid berth in the BC Classic.

The previous Haskell record crowd was 53,368 in 2003, when Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide finished third behind Peace Rules.

95 Days to Kickoff: Waubonsie Valley

95 Days to Kickoff: Waubonsie Valley

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O'Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we'll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Waubonsie Valley

Head coach: Paul Murphy

Assistant coaches: Ron Griffin, Tom Baumgarnter, Chris Genslinger, Brad Caldwell, Josh Cuttone, Noel Soto, Ryan Voitik, Duane Butts and Ken Anderson

How they fared in 2017: 4-5 (4-4 DuPage Valley Conference). Waubonsie Valley failed to qualify for the IHSA playoff field.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 @ Oak Park-River Forest

Aug. 31 vs Libertyville

Sept 7 @ Neuqua Valley

Sept. 14 @ Edwardsville

Sept. 21 vs Naperville North

Sept. 28 vs Neuqua Valley

Oct. 5 vs Prairie Ridge

Oct. 12 @ Naperville Central

Oct. 19 @ Metea Valley

[MORE: 96 Days to Kickoff: Jacobs]

Biggest storyline: It's all about the schedule. Can the Warriors survive a challenging lineup --which includes playing Neuqua Valley twice-- and make the playoffs?

Names to watch this season: WR Julian Cain and DL Avante Rogers

Biggest holes to fill: The Warriors will have several new faces on both the offensive and defensive lines in 2018. 

EDGY's Early Take: It's not often that veteran head coach Paul Murphy and his Warriors view the playoffs from home. But that's what happened last year. They were the first Waubonsie team since 2006 to do just that. Look for the Warriors to rely on a strong group of receivers to bounce back this fall. They also feature a good group of underclassmen ready to step up. Also, they will need to get used to life in the newly-realigned DuPage Valley Conference. The 2018 schedule includes two games against big district rival Neuqua Valley and a loaded non-conference slate which includes some heavy hitters. 

Will Mitch Trubisky be this season's Jared Goff?

Will Mitch Trubisky be this season's Jared Goff?

The Chicago Bears have been compared to the Los Angeles Rams as a team capable of a significant one-year turnaround after the many moves by GM Ryan Pace to improve the offense and build around second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

According to NFL.com's Adam Schein, the comparisons go one step further. He thinks Trubisky is the best candidate to be 2018's version of Jared Goff:

"I'm infatuated with the Bears' offseason," Schein wrote. "The Bears smartly followed the Rams' blueprint from last offseason: hand the keys to an offensive guru/quarterback whisperer (Matt Nagy) and dedicate the offseason to surrounding your young signal-caller with talent (Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton in free agency, James Daniels and Anthony Miller in the draft). Trubisky will follow in Goff's footsteps and take a major jump in his sophomore campaign."

MULLIN: Teammates see greatness in Trubisky

The comparison of Trubisky to Goff makes a ton of sense. Both were drafted with franchise-quarterback expectations but had average rookie seasons. Both played their first year with an old-school, defensive-minded head coach who was later replaced by a young up-and-coming offensive specialist. And both Goff and Trubisky were given high-powered weapons to begin their sophomore seasons with (the Rams signed Robert Woods and traded for Sammy Watkins before last season). 

Trubisky has to turn these comparisons into production, however. The Rams' remarkable 2017 campaign was just that because rarely does a team have such a dramatic turnaround in only one offseason. The odds aren't in the Bears' favor.

Still, there's a surge of confidence and support in and around Trubisky from the coaching staff and his teammates. He's doing everything he can to prepare for a Goff-like season. We'll find out soon enough if his preparation pays off.