Handicapping Insights -- August 6
by Dick Powell
How good is AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile)? Well, after Sunday’s Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park, when he jogged home the easiest of winners in fast time, the sky is the limit. You would have to say he is one of the best 3YOs we have ever seen.
But somewhere in your 3YO season, you have to take on older horses to gain immortality but that will not come for this year’s Triple Crown winner until the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at the end of October at Keeneland.
Luckily for American Pharoah, he is not taking the SECRETARIAT (Bold Ruler) route. That 1973 Triple Crown winner, after an easy win at Arlington Park, decided to take on older horses in the Whitney H. (G1) and was upset by ONION (Third Martini). Because this year’s Whitney, run this Saturday at Saratoga, is one for the ages, and had American Pharoah run there he would have been severely tested, even with a weight allowance.
But, back to the Haskell.
American Pharoah broke well for Victor Espinoza, who sent him up after the early leader, COMPETITIVE EDGE (Super Saver). MR. JORDAN (Kantharos), winner of the Pegasus S. (G3) at Monmouth Park last time out, tried to apply outside pressure to put American Pharoah in a sandwich but it failed miserably as Espinoza let it out a notch, just enough, to cruise down the backside with Competitive Edge in his sights.
Mr. Jordan quickly backed out of the race but UPSTART (Flatter) mounted a menacing run around the turn and, briefly, looked like he might make it a race. But just as quickly, American Pharoah laughed at that challenge and went up on the outside of Competitive Edge to seize command through six furlongs in 1:09.30.
In the blink of an eye, American Pharoah opened up a decisive lead after turning for home and Espinoza took the foot off the gas pedal and coasted home. Kent Desormeaux had KEEN ICE (Curlin) in a drive and he closed the gap as American Pharoah waltzed to his easiest win. Like in the Belmont S. (G1), the public wants to see this horse win and when it looks like he will, they cheer wildly despite the lack of drama in the race’s outcome.
As soon as the race was over, the connections of America Pharoah were bombarded with questions about what is next. The Travers S. (G1) is in 27 days and owner Ahmed Zayat and his son Justin, indicate that they want to be in the Mid-Summer Derby.
Trainer Bob Baffert shipped American Pharoah back to his base at Del Mar and he is far less bullish on coming back East for another cross-country trip. I still say he won’t come to the Travers but his Haskell win was so easy, at least there is a chance that he will.
Waiting for the Travers will be the second and third-place finishers of the Haskell – Keen Ice and Upstart – and the top two finishers of Saturday’s Jim Dandy S. (G2) – TEXAS RED (Afleet Alex) and FROSTED (Tapit).
Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner, Texas Red, who was second in his two starts this year, was trying to get back on the winning trail and was meeting only three other rivals in the Jim Dandy that saw three defections to other 3YO stakes race.
Loose on the lead was JAPAN (Medaglia d’Oro), who won the Easy Goer S. on the Belmont Stakes undercard. He went to the front and held on a long time through a modest six furlongs in 1:11.92. Kent Desormeaux had Texas Red in perfect striking position and he timed his move perfectly. He went up after the leader suddenly, not giving him a chance to battle back, while opening up daylight between him and Frosted.
Texas Red put away a stubborn Japan in the deep stretch and Frosted was beginning to gain ground with every stride. Desormeaux’s decisive move was the difference and he held on by a half-length over Frosted, who lost a shoe during the running of the race. Japan was a good third in his first try against the big boys in only his fifth career start.
Now, Desormeaux has to decide whether to ride Texas Red for his brother Keith or Keen Ice for Dale Romans in the Travers. I would go with Texas Red if I were him.
So, now the major contenders of the Travers have identified themselves and American Pharoah’s participation is still to be determined. But, after seeing the field for Saturday’s Whitney, lucky he went to the Haskell since this is a vintage renewal of the historic race for 3YOs and up.
This year’s Whitney has drawn seven individual Grade 1 winners, a Grade 2 scorer and a listed stakes winner. Last year’s victor, MORENO (Ghostzapper), returns to defend his crown and a sneaky contender is LIAM’S MAP (Unbridled’s Song), who has won his last four races and could be getting good at the right time while getting seven pounds.
What makes this year’s Whitney such a fascinating handicapping exercise is how many of the starters are coming off career-best races. Younger horses can improve off career-best races since they still might be maturing but older horses usually don’t.
HONOR CODE (A.P. Indy) is coming off a smashing win in the Met Mile (G1) for which he earned a 110 BRIS Speed rating. He is a bit suspect going two turns and the winning profile for nine-furlong on the main track here does not favor deep closers.
TONALIST (Tapit) loves Belmont but was beaten up at Saratoga last year in the Jim Dandy and Travers. He was a game second in the Met Mile two starts back and then just missed in the Suburban H. (G2) going 10 furlongs at Belmont and earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 110.
NOBLE BIRD (Birdstone) has suddenly improved with a win in the Alysheba S. (G2) at Churchill Downs then came back to win the Stephen Foster S. (G1) with a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 109. His sire, BIRDSTONE (Grindstone) won the Travers in 2004.
V. E. DAY (English Channel) won the Travers last year then came back with a game second in the Brooklyn H. (G2), where he earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 106. COACH INGE (Big Brown) was a game third in the Suburban when he earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 109.
And LEA (First Samurai) came back from his third-place performance in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1) with a close second in the Foster and earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 109, dispelling, once again, the false notion of a “Dubai Bounce.”
Another way of looking at it is American Pharoah’s career best BRIS Speed rating of 109, earned in the Belmont Stakes, is slower than three of the Whitney starter’s and equal to three others. With a weight allowance, he would still be the highest rated horse had he run in the Whitney, but not by much and who knows which of them might have jumped up and improved.
It is something to keep in mind when American Pharoah faces older horses toward the end of the year.