Travers moves to the fore for American Pharoah’s next start

Profile Picture: James Scully

August 4th, 2015

The guessing game started the moment he finished dominating the competition in Sunday’s Haskell (G1) – where will American Pharoah run next?

In the last 48 hours, owner Ahmed Zayat provided some insight via Twitter, removing the Pacific Classic (G1) on August 22 and the Pennsylvania Derby (G2) on September 19 from serious consideration.

“Zero shot!! Timing doesn’t work,” Zayat said of the three-week turnaround for the Pacific Classic.

“No Penn Derby,” Zayat said in regard to shipping to Parx Racing.

However, the one caveat Zayat points out is he will leave trainer Bob Baffert completely alone to make the decision.

The smart money is now on the August 29 Travers (G1) at Saratoga. NYRA officials announced a purse increase of $350,000 to $1.6 million if American Pharoah runs and Zayat has expressed a preference for the 1 ¼-mile race for three-year-olds.

Baffert is on record saying he would prefer to keep American Pharoah against three-year-olds until his final start, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Keeneland on October 31, and the Travers is the most prestigious event for three-year-olds remaining on the schedule.

American Pharoah probably has enough time to recuperate from the Haskell (four weeks) and Saratoga would serve as a proper venue for the enormous crowd that will turn out to witness a Triple Crown champion.

Let’s handicap the options:

Travers (even-money): Detractors will point out American Pharoah doesn’t have anything to prove against his own division but the Travers will likely come up tougher than the Pacific Classic a week earlier, and possibly the Jockey Club Gold (G1) and Awesome Again (G1) for three-year-olds and up this fall.

His Travers competition would include Texas Red and Frosted, who both appear in razor-sharp form following last Saturday’s thrilling Jim Dandy (G2) and rate as leading contenders for runner-up honors in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (every horse is running for second if American Pharoah shows up with his best).

American Pharoah would be the overwhelming favorite and it’s tough to envision a scenario where he loses – he’s at a different level from any horse in training. But Saratoga is called the “Graveyard of Champions” and Baffert’s track record isn’t the same as the Haskell, which he’s now captured a staggering eight times.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s only Travers win came via Horse of the Year Point Given in 2001 and last year had to leave a bad taste -- Bayern won three of his final four starts in 2014 (Haskell, Pennsylvania Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic), the only setback being a last-place Travers finish.

Those reasons may give some pause to the selection process but wouldn’t be enough to stop Baffert from shipping his charge to upstate New York – American Pharoah takes his track with him and the Travers makes sense from a logistical standpoint, with nine weeks to freshen up for the grand finale.

Awesome Again (15-1): Baffert will pull the plug on the Travers if he believes American Pharoah needs more time to be at his best. If that happens, the $300,000 Awesome Again on September 26 makes sense.

The 1 1/8-mile race will be in his backyard at Santa Anita and connections will have little to worry about having to step up and face older horses.

Jockey Club Gold Cup (25-1): The $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) is another viable option if connections elect to bypass the Travers. American Pharoah is proven over the Belmont Park surface, winning the Belmont Stakes (G1) in breath-taking fashion, but they would have to ship across country four weeks out from his main engagement.

The travel logistics (does he ship back to California afterward before returning to the Midwest a few weeks later?) aren’t favorable, making the Awesome Again a safer bet, but the Jockey Club Gold Cup is more lucrative and prestigious than its counterpart.

Pennsylvania Derby (75-1): The $1 million Pennsylvania Derby has served as an excellent prep the last two years, with Bayern and California Chrome (a neck third in the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic) both using the 1 1/8-mile event and Will Take Charge winning the previous edition before recording a nose second to Mucho Macho Man in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Recent history works in its favor but Parx Racing isn’t equipped to handle the mob scene that would accompany American Pharoah’s presence – it’s a smaller venue and the throng of people would interfere with casino patrons.

Pacific Classic (99-1): Previously held on Travers weekend, the old date was suitable but Del Mar moved the 2015 edition to August 22. Officials had no way of knowing American Pharoah would come along, but it turned it out to be bad luck, indeed.

Victor Espinoza did a good job wrapping up on his mount, saving as much as he could for upcoming starts, but three weeks probably isn’t enough time following a cross-country sojourn.

American Pharoah winning the Haskell photo courtesy of Ryan Denver/Equi-Photo