American Pharoah's Travers experience didn't go as planned but still a special weekend at Saratoga

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TwinSpires Staff

September 3rd, 2015

By Dick Powell

He came, he saw, but he didn’t conquer. Oh well. Not every fairy tale has a happy ending but until the last 100 yards of the Travers Stakes (G1) last Saturday, it looked like a great chapter of Saratoga history was about to be written. Instead, we have another entry into the “Graveyard of Champions” lore.

From the moment he landed at Albany Airport on Wednesday afternoon and was vanned up to John Terranova’s barn at Saratoga Race Course, it was all AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) all the time. And, rightfully so given he was the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed (Exclusive Native) in 1978 to contest the Travers.

A month of “will he or won’t he come to Saratoga” ended after a brilliant workout last Sunday at Del Mar that took away trainer Bob Baffert’s last excuse to not come. American Pharoah gave every indication that he exited the Haskell (G1) in great shape and connections announced Sunday afternoon he was shipping east to enter the “Mid-Summer Derby.”

The anticipation to see racing’s latest Triple Crown winner culminated on Friday morning when American Pharoah was scheduled to gallop after the renovation break. I was at the track at 6:30 a.m. (ET) and the line of fans waiting to watch him work out extended down Union Avenue. At 7 a.m., the gates opened up and while it was not the stampede we see every year on Travers morning, when “guests” that have waited all night charge in and try to secure their favorite spots at the track, it was amazing how many people showed up.

By 7:30 a.m., the entire outer rail of the homestretch was filled and even with severe traffic problems, people continued to swarm in. An estimated 18,000 were on hand waiting for a glimpse of American Pharoah on a bright, sunny morning. Editor’s Note: the population of Saratoga Springs is 27,315.

American Pharoah left the Terranova barn, where Baffert stables when he ships to Saratoga, walked over to frontside and then broke off into a gallop around the historic oval. Google “American Pharoah Gopro” to watch the video from a camera on the exercise rider’s helmet -- it is sensational.

It was a scene that Hollywood could not stage or an audience would not believe. When Mike de Kock ran Mubtaahij (Dubawi) in the Kentucky Derby (G1) this year, he could not get over how thousands of fans turn out Derby week to see the Derby starters exercise. I wish he could have been in Saratoga last Friday.

American Pharoah looked great in his gallop and showed the cross-country trip was not a problem. His stride was fluid and his energy level was excellent.

But, was it too much?

As caught up in the euphoria as I was, and it was a morning at the track that I will never forget, there was a nagging fear in the back of my mind that it was too much too close to the race. Did the enormous crowd cheering him on get him to gallop too strong?

On Saturday, the main track was pretty quick late in the day and when RUNHAPPY (Super Saver) and PRIVATE ZONE (Macho Uno) won the King’s Bishop (G1) and Forego (G1) respectively by dominating on the front end, it certainly looked like American Pharoah would have a track he would handle well.

At the start of the Travers, UPSTART (Flatter) was not sent to the front from his rail post position so Victor Espinoza was able to guide American Pharoah to the front. In the Forego, Joel Rosario was dislodged from BOURBON COURAGE (Lion Heart), forcing a trip to the hospital for x-rays, and he could not ride FROSTED (Tapit) in the Travers two races later. Jose Lezcano deputized for Kiaran McLaughlin and when Frosted broke extremely well from the gate, Lezcano went on with him and challenged American Pharoah early.

Like Ridan (Nantallah) and Jaipur (Nasrullah) in the 1962 Travers, American Pharoah and Frosted separated themselves from the field and dueled like they were running in a turf sprint. Even though the first half-mile was completed in a modest 48.30 seconds, it was contested in a way where neither horse had a breather. The pressure cooker began to heat up as they covered the third quarter in 23.18 seconds and the next quarter-mile around the far turn went in 23.60 seconds.

As the top two were in their own world racing extremely close to each other, KEEN ICE (Curlin) was racing nearer to the pace than normal but still had five lengths to make up in the stretch.

With a quarter-mile to go, Frosted put a head in front and it looked like American Pharoah was in deep water. But the heart of a champion is hard to deny and he battled back gamely while pinned to the rail, surging to the front. American Pharoah won his battle with Frosted but lost the war of the Travers when Keen Ice went by him in the final yards to pull off the upset at 16-to-1.

American Pharoah suffered no embarrassment in defeat and for Keen Ice, it was a testament to a belief in the horse by his trainer and owner who keep trying to beat the leading 3yo. American Pharoah had won the last three match-ups but there was Keen Ice, not going to the Pennsylvania Derby (G2) but showing up at the Travers, and finally kicking the door in after knocking on it.

As loud as the crowd was in the homestretch of the Travers, Saratoga went suddenly silent when it looked like the upset was going to happen. Immediately after the race, an emotional owner Ahmed Zayat mentioned retirement for American Pharoah but that was probably a function of the raw emotion of the upset settling in.

The next morning, American Pharoah looked good and an upbeat Baffert mentioned that he would like to train him up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). Dale Romans has said that he wants to do the same thing with Keen Ice so there is still hope that we can see an epic battle in the Classic with this year’s 3YOs taking on a strong crop of older horses.

And Zayat confirmed on Thursday that American Pharoah will remain in training and be pointed toward the October 31 Classic at Keeneland.

If you were able to be at Saratoga on Saturday, you got to see a remarkable performance by FLINTSHIRE (Dansili) in the Sword Dancer Stakes (G1). Stuck down on the rail for most of the 1 ½ mile race on the inner turf course, a hole opened up on the far turn and he shot through it like a cannon. Within three strides, the Sword Dancer was over and he cruised to a 2 ½-length victory as the even money favorite.

In watching American turf racing, I can’t ever remember a 1 ½-mile turf race where the winner covered the first six furlongs in 1:13.93 and the last six furlongs in 1:09.23. It was a breath-taking turn of foot from Flintshire whose career earnings are now approaching $6 million.