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As if a man just off a bender, an apt analogy really, American Pharoah's owner roller-coasted the full range of emotions.
"I have a huge responsibility," owner Ahmed Zayat said after 'Pharoah's second-place finish in The Travers Stakes on Saturday. "I haven't spoken to my family, and (trainer) Bob (Baffert), but you start questioning yourself. Have I pushed the envelope too much? He was happy and he's special and he is the Triple Crown winner. Then you have to ask yourself, 'Is the show over? Is it time?'"
After 'Pharoah's loss, at legendary Saratoga, nicknamed the Graveyard of Champions for just the kind of thing that happened this weekend, the first thing I thought is that Zayat is going to feel terrible. He'll say whatever is on his mind, including my gasping fear: retirement for the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
On Sunday morning, the attitude was more open. I was taken by Baffert's comment that 'Pharoah had to work so hard in this race. It was the same thing he said after the Kentucky Derby.
"He was blowing pretty hard last night after the race, but once he got back here, within about 10-15 minutes, he was cooled out pretty quick," Baffert said. "We could tell that's the first time he got a lot out of (a race). He was blowing pretty good."
At the risk of naivete, I'll say I am really pleased that Zayat brought American Pharoah to Saratoga and The Travers. It's a journey into the lair of the unexpected, no matter who your horse is. Seems Zayat felt an obligation. As fans, we're happy.
Hell, Secretariat lost here, in the Whitney, not the Travers, after his epic Belmont win. Only one horse, 1941's Whirlaway, won both the Triple Crown and The Travers. Affirmed and Gallant Fox also lost here.
I think this could be a great sequence for Thoroughbred horse racing. Unlike a cheap Ronald Reagan RKO script, this is the real thing; true drama. With the gargantuan caveat: If they keep running him. And why not train right into the October 31 Breeders' Cup Classic?
Hello, Ma. Hello, Pa. We took a bit of a blow at Saratoga, but we're back on top now at Keeneland, God willing and a nice autumn. Our best to you.
For perspective, The Travers, aka "The Summer Derby," is a huge race. In my opinion, greater than the Kentucky Derby, and today even better. Travers Day is also better than Derby Day. At 2015's 146, The Travers is five years older than the Derby.
Its winners include, and I'll go way back here, D'Artangnan, Hindoo, Man o' War, Jim Dandy at 100-1 with the key Travers prep named after him, Native Dancer, Sword Dancer (now a race on the Travers undercard), Buckpasser, Damascus, Arts and Letters, Alydar, Easy Goer, Point Given, Medaglia d'Oro, Flower Alley, Bernardini. It's as coveted a race as there is.
After the race, they paint the canoe in the infield pond the colors of the winning connections. Very Sleepy Hollow. They have the right.
Going into this year's Travers, I obviously wanted American Pharoah to win. But there's a biblically old cliche: "That's why they run the races."
Baffert said the horse told him he was ready, three weeks out from his stunning performance in The Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on August 2nd. He had speedily worked at 1:23:20 over seven furlongs at Del Mar the weekend before and was deemed ready.
As I've said, hindsight makes it all crystal clear. I'm thinking one culprit might be the three weeks since the Haskell. But as a Triple Crown winner, we cut them the major slack.
Before the race, Baffert expressed concern about the shipping. He arrived at Saratoga on Wednesday. His 10-furlong jog drew 15,000 people on Thursday. While I was concerned about his ribs showing, NBC touts Randy Moss and Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey tried to explain it off as an indication of his "length." Even Baffert said 'Pharoah has a difficult time keeping on his weight.
But these other horses were the usual suspects, the best of them already vanquished by the 'Pharoah.
The race reminded me of Smarty Jones having to work so hard in his Belmont quest, valiantly taking the lead but doomed by the workload.
Before the race, Texas Red's trainer, J. Keith Desormeaux, brother of the horse's jockey Kent Desormeaux, declared boldly that if 'Pharoah was to be beaten, it would be his horse. Trainer Dale Romans, with no bravado, said that if 'Pharoah wins the race, he's not only considered among the all-time greats, but perhaps the all-time great. Um, no. Even though I can say I followed a Triple Crown winner in real time.
American Pharoah has never set a track or race record. We give him his due, but he's no Citation or Secretariat.
American Pharoah and Frosted broke well.
Frosted's jockey, Joel Rosario, lost his day when his horse in an earlier race appeared to clip heels, stumbled and dropped Rosario. It looks like he'll be okay. That put Jose Lezcano up on Frosted. A fine jockey.
Their class separated them from the field by two or three lengths, sometimes more.
As any hero with a target on his back, Frosted went after him. Maybe we win, maybe we lose.
The first calls were 24 and 2, and 48 and 3. No crawl, but certainly no burn. Slowish. Ripe.
Wheelhouse, this is where American Pharoah pulls away and wins. Except, he couldn't. Frosted harassed him, pushed him, aggravated him. Goddammit, I can't shake this guy! Victor Espinoza asked on the turn, but the burst and the turn of foot was just not there. Pharoah didn't have it in him to lose him.
I thought on the backstretch, he's done. This was the kind of aggravation that he doesn't want.
But, the hero he is, he battled Frosted all down the stretch, losing the lead and then gaining it back. Besting Frosted. It was just electrifying, gallant.
In racing, pace is everything. The slowish pace allowed Keen Ice to relax a bit, not work too hard, and Lezcano timed his run perfectly, we know now, because they were all running out of real estate. The wire could not save American Pharoah.
Oh, it was a thrilling race. Pharoah ran his heart out. It was wonderful.
Wagering? I'm as cold as Keen Ice. Made a nice buck on the race.
Cross your fingers for a run in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
We need to see him run again. We really do.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Apr 19, 2019