18,000 Miles

18,000 miles.* Or more accurately, 18,001.25 miles, of which the last one and a quarter was too much.

Welcome to the Graveyard of Favorites, American Pharoah.  But it wasn’t American Pharoah who lost yesterday’s 146th running of the Travers Stakes; the flawed plan of his connections did.

My major and stated concern with American Pharoah contesting the Travers was that he’d traveled SO many miles in the lead up to and throughout the Triple Crown and just in the last 27 days from coast to coast that the constant travel just might extract a toll. In the last quarter mile I got the answer I feared as American Pharoah gamely wrested the lead from Frosted only to be tagged at the wire by Keen Ice in a plodding, decidedly non-American Pharoah last quarter of :26 seconds and change.

The question, for me is, why did they ship American Pharoah back to the West Coast off his Haskell victory? Even prior to the Haskell there was talk that, should he run well and not appear to have had a taxing effort, American Pharoah might contest the Travers.  I don’t understand why the didn’t leave him at Monmouth or ship over to Saratoga or even back to Churchill Downs, which had been his base throughout the Triple Crown while that decision was being made.  Not saying it would have allowed him to win yesterday, but it would have eliminated two cross-country flights and the inevitable stresses and fatigue that can be incurred.

Let’s take a brief look at what did happen on the track in the Travers Stakes.

What exactly was Frosted doing contesting the lead? I’d pay good New York money to know if that was intentional or if Frosted, who was on his toes in the post parade, got away from new rider Jose Lezcano.  It wasn’t his usual stalking, off the pace style. And the bottom line is there isn’t another three-year-old colt that can go stride for stride with American Pharoah, even when he wasn’t at his best, and expect to survive and win. Hard to figure what that was about, but it wasn’t and could never be a viable winning strategy.

But even with Frosted engaging him early, you can’t place the blame for the loss on this confrontation, primarily because the opening half-mile fractions were modest–:24 and :48 seconds and change. American Pharoah can run faster than that in a morning gallop.

Keen Ice “stayed in his lane,” ran true to his style, and in the more than capable hands of Javier Castellano was there to pick up the pieces of a wilting American Pharoah.  All hail Javier in his first ride on Keen Ice. Castellano’s mastery of the Saratoga track was on full display yet again in the Travers and was about the only thing I got right in my pre-race analysis.

Let’s briefly revisit the trips of the other key players in the race.

Texas Red.  Huge disappointment.  He was never involved or a factor in the race and showed none of the style he displayed in winning the Jim Dandy Stakes over the Saratoga Track on August 1.

Upstart. FAR more game than I expected him to be, but never in contention for the win.

Everyone else, pretty much the also rans I expected them to be.

So now the plot completely thickens.  Where does American Pharoah go from here? The “R-word” has already been thrown out in post-race comments. And that’s as in immediate, not the previously stated plan of after a run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If it’s still on to the Classic, does American Pharoah enter it off a long layoff that starts today of run once more prior to?  That was another reason why I had felt the Travers, win, lose or draw wasn’t necessarily the best placement for him in preparation for that goal.  It either leaves a long unraced gap between the Travers and the Classic or about forces one more race to be squeezed in prior to October 31.  Fortunately, it’s not my problem to resolve.

I’m grateful to the Zayats for their generosity with American Pharoah.  Unfortunately, they fell into the same trap the connections of Secretariat (defeat in the 1973 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga) and Seattle Slew (his first-ever loss in the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park, just three weeks after his Triple Crown-sealing win in the Belmont Stakes) did with one ill-timed race too many. Master horseman Horatio Luro was well known for getting the best out of his horses by not “squeezing the lemon dry.” That’s sometimes hard to remember when you’re in the midst of “laissez les bon temps rouler,” and an impending stated 2016 retirement date.

Much like Zenyatta in the 2010 edition of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, American Pharoah revealed much more in defeat than in any of his Triple Crown race victories. Up until yesterday, he was just an ultra-cool colt with an amazing stride.  In the Travers he showed he has a heart that’s every bit as amazing.

*According to USA Today, (8.29.15), American Pharoah has been flown more than 18,000 miles around the country in his 2015 race campaign.

Exorcism

“The Graveyard of Champions.”

Today, American Pharoah will step foot on the Saratoga Racecourse track to face nine competitors and, in the process, attempt to put its long-standing reputation to rest for awhile.

Man O’ War lost his only race at Saratoga.  Secretariat lost, post-Triple Crown success, at Saratoga.  Triple Crown Champion Affirmed was disqualified from his win in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.  I’ve been watching the meet since it started in late July, and although I don’t have the stats, I’ve seen a lot of favorites, especially short-price favorites crash and burn at the track also known as The Spa.  My guesstimate is that the win rate has been 50-50, favorites to other horses in the respective fields.

So here are the basics.  Race 11, The Travers Stakes, contested at 1 1/4 miles. Post Time: 5:46 p.m. The field and my comments:

1.Upstart–Doesn’t want 1 1/8 miles let alone 1 1/4.

2.American Pharoah–Even Saratoga’s longstanding reputation will have a hard time stopping The Ruler.

3.Mid Ocean–Who?

4.Texas Red–The ONLY colt in this field that I think call pull an upset.  The son of Afleet Alex is coming back strong, and appears relentless like his sire.

5.Frammento–Not again.  Hasn’t been in the same zip code as many of these in previous matchups.

6.Frosted–The lost shoe could have been an issue in his second-place finish in the Jim Dandy.  Personally, I’m starting to doubt his desire/ability to get a mile and a quarter also.

7.Keen Ice–He’ll be coming at the end, but he’s lost his most effective rider, Kent Desoumeaux, to Texas Red.  Still Javier Castellano KNOWS how to ride ’em and for sure knows where the Saratoga wire is.

8.Tale of Verve–It ain’t raining today.

9. King of New York–Who again?

10.Smart Transition–Won the ungraded Curlin Stakes earlier in the meet.  Might break the top four; will not win.

Fifteen thousand people showed up early yesterday to watch American Pharoah take a gallop around the track.  By his appearance and the comments of his exercise rider he likes and is handling the surface well.  He looks as robust, fresh, and happy as he has at any point during this magical run.

Still…the reason for my superstitious rationale (how’s THAT for an oxymoron??!!) for a potential upset, what’s giving me cause for concern is the track’s reputation and the number of trips he’s made and miles he’s travelled just in August (let alone for his entire 2015 season to date).  It was just 27 days ago when he ran in and won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth.  I’d feel more confident if he’d stayed on the East Coast between races as he did during his Triple Crown assault.

But hey, we’re talking American Pharoah here; why worry?  Just enjoy!  

Greatness Personified

My mom used to refer to people she thought of as conceited as ones who felt they were “greatness personified.”  Well I’m here to turn that usage around a bit toward the complimentary side.  If you watched yesterday’s edition of the Haskell Stakes from Monmouth Park, you saw greatness personified in the most wonderful and brilliant fashion as American Pharoah cruised to his eighth victory in a row.  In his first race back from winning the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown it certainly appeared that he lost nothing in the process of attaining that rare feat. Maybe he’s even better and stronger. Yikes!

If he wasn’t so magnificent to watch, you might actually start to get bored with American Pharoah’s races. He just makes it look all too easy against what are good fields of usually competitive three-year-old colts.  And it’s all in that superior stride he’s been gifted with.  The most telling moment in the race yesterday was shortly out of the gate when Competitive Edge took the lead, American Pharoah sat second, and Mr. Jordan was third on his flank.  Competitive Edge and Mr. Jordan were working to get and hold their early positions while American Pharoah was just smoothly loping along; they were doing almost twice the work while getting half the result that American Pharoah was getting without significant effort.  It almost isn’t fair.  And those early efforts took their toll with Mr. Jordan dropping out quickly to finish last, beaten by 60 lengths in the end and Competitive Edge finishing a well-beaten fourth.  In the end, the only horse closing ground was the late-running Keen Ice and even his closing move was a bit deceptive to the eye as American Pharoah had been geared down and was being hand-ridden to the finish line.

Personally, I’ll never get enough of watching American Pharoah running and winning.  From the response of the Monmouth crowd yesterday, I’m not the only one.  There was a tremendous roar from that crowd when American Pharoah began to make his move to take the lead at the turn for home.  It’s a thrill to have this type of enthusiasm and turnout for horse racing again.

It’s unclear when American Pharoah will race again.  There is a chance he might move on to Saratoga to run in the Travers Stakes at the end of August, the 29th to be exact.  Saratoga is certainly making the effort to draw the Triple Crown winner in as they have indicated they will increase the purse if American Pharoah races.  It seems like a good possibility to me; there’s probably just one, maybe two races left before American Pharoah’s final race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, to be held this year for the first time at Keeneland.

Meanwhile, in the Jim Dandy, the prime setup race for the Travers, the complexion of the race changed significantly with the scratches of Competitive Edge and Upstart to take on American Pharoah in the Haskell yesterday (M-O-N-E-Y) and Tekton who ran in the day before to a second place finish in the Curlin Stakes at Saratoga.  Still, the race came down to the two horses and scenario I anticipated: Texas Red picked up early leader Japan mid-stretch to take the lead and Frosted came late attempting to run him down, but came up short.  Texas Red indeed seemed to thrive with the added distance of the race (1 1/8 miles) and Frosted did appear a bit short.  He also lost a shoe during the running of the race.  If all goes well, the two will go at it again in the Travers Stakes at the classic 1 1/4-mile distance. I would love to see American Pharoah mix it up with Frosted and Texas Red (they met as two-year-olds on the West Coast) again.  The field for the Travers will sort itself out soon enough.  Stay tuned.

More great racing and fun ahead this weekend with one of my favorites: Tonalist taking on Stephen Foster winner Noble Bird and others in the 1 1/8-mile Whitney Stakes, which generally leads to the Woodward Stakes the last weekend of the Saratoga meet.

A quick word on an exciting up and coming filly racing on the turf–Casual Smile won the WinStar Matchmaker Stakes on the Haskell undercard.  Casual Smile is one of the rare stateside offspring of European champion Sea The Stars.  Seeing that name in the pedigree was more than enough for me and I was amazed she went off at 9-1.  What a gift!  She sat off the pace and bravely squeezed through a narrow spot between two other runners, late and full of run to get the win.  Keep your eye out for this classy filly.

And finally, on the subject of great turf fillies, late last week it was announced that Lady Eli appears to be responding well to her treatment for laminitis.  Thoughts and prayers continue on for this really special racehorse!