JC / Railbird

American Pharoah

Four Derbies, One Triple Crown

Bob Baffert might be the one trainer a non-racing regular can name, thanks to his Triple Crown race record (Wall Street Journal — beware paywall):

[Not even D. Wayne Lukas] can match Baffert’s ruthless efficiency. Both have won the Derby four times, the most of any trainers in the last 50 years. But Lukas has done it starting 48 horses, versus Baffert’s 27. Both have won the Preakness six times, but Lukas’s total comes in 41 attempts — more than twice Baffert’s 18.

For the past 20 years, Baffert’s California-based operation has been a Triple Crown juggernaut. He won both the first two legs of the Triple Crown in two consecutive years in 1997 and 1998. Then after years of more big-time wins both in the U.S. and across the globe, his Triple Crown triumph with American Pharoah in 2015 sealed his legacy as one of the best ever.”

Related: Paying a visit to American Pharoah, “a stud and a gentleman.”

Tea Leaves

American Pharoah returned to Del Mar on Monday, apparently none the worse for his second-place finish to Keen Ice in the Travers, and the track announced that the Triple Crown winner would parade for fans on Sunday. Should owner Ahmed Zayat decide to retire American Pharoah, as he said his “gut feeling” was in the hours following Saturday’s race, “his Del Mar appearance might serve as a racing farewell.” So, that’s one open-to-interpretation phrase to parse as to the 3-year-old colt’s future.

Jay Privman reports, though (DRF+):

… it appears American Pharoah will be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland, and Baffert said Tuesday that he could even have a prep race, though he emphasized it’s “too soon to make that call.”

(Also? Baffert’s as done as anyone with talking about the Travers results. “It’s over with. He just got beat. Time to move on.”)

Trainer Aidan O’Brien added some intrigue to the Breeders’ Cup Classic scene, announcing that star miler Gleneagles would point to Keeneland:

“Given suitable ground, Gleneagles will run in the Irish Champion Stakes on Saturday week,” the trainer said. “Failing that, he will be aimed at the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in October. His end-of-season target is the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland, where he may face American Pharoah.”

Kellie Reilly wonders if there’s a deeper meaning:

Let’s consider this from the Coolmore chess-pieces angle: the global bloodstock juggernaut owns Gleneagles, and will stand Triple Crown champion American Pharoah upon his retirement to stud. Given the timing of this declaration of intent, it’s tempting to read between the lines and think that the chances of American Pharoah making the Classic may be receding. That’s not to say there can’t be the clash that Aidan O’Brien mentions in his statement on Gleneagles, but doesn’t it maximize the benefit to Coolmore to emphasize the hypothetical for the time being?

I’d like to see American Pharoah make it to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not least because, as Amanda Duckworth writes, “it would be a shame if he never competed against his elders.” It would be more of a shame if the reason he didn’t compete against older had nothing to do with injury or unsoundness. Zayat has been outspoken about racing American Pharoah through this year for the good of the game and the thrill of the fans. “When Zayat told NBC on Saturday that he was thinking only of Pharoah’s fans and the horse’s legacy, I finally believed him,” Bob Barry writes in today’s Blood-Horse Daily (PDF). I believe him too, I believe he means it. But it’s a fragile trust.

The Runner-Up

American Pharoah and Frosted go head to head around the stretch turn of the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga
Frosted and American Pharoah, on the rail, turn into the stretch of the Travers Stakes. Keen Ice is to the outside. Photo credit: Arianna Spadoni/NYRA

Steve Haskin had concerns before the Travers Stakes. Gary West felt a shiver of apprehension. Trainer Bob Baffert thought the Pennsylvania Derby was, possibly, better timing for the Triple Crown winner. “I just hope I don’t have to say, I should have gone to Parx,” he said to Sean Clancy. He had been leery of bringing American Pharoah to Saratoga: “I don’t want to find any Onions.”

In the air-conditioned chill of his family’s Saratoga clubhouse box, awaiting the Travers, Justin Zayat predicted the future:

“What is everyone expecting right now? They’re expecting Pharoah to win. My experience in racing is when everyone is hoping for something, it never happens.”

When did American Pharoah lose the Travers? He came out of the gate well and went to the front. So far, so good. He clipped off :12 second furlongs through the first half, just as he had in the Belmont Stakes. But he wasn’t alone. Frosted was to his outside, and as they moved down the backstretch, the gray pressed for more speed. Trakus records them as running the same time in the third quarter — an even :23 seconds. “Frosted is taking it to him,” called Larry Collmus. More than four lengths back, Keen Ice was matching their velocity.

DRF incremental times for the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga
DRF incremental times for the Travers / View the official Equibase chart (PDF)

Turning into the stretch, Frosted crowded Pharoah on the rail. At the top of the stretch, Frosted headed Pharaoh. Jockey Victor Espinoza alleged rider Jose Lezcano, who had picked up the mount on Frosted after Joel Rosario went down in the Forego Handicap, was being aggressive, reports David Grening:

Espinoza claimed he felt Frosted’s chest hit his horse’s hip, and “he turned me sideways,” altering American Pharoah’s stride. Espinoza said Frosted hit him five or six times, though replays don’t bear that out.

Said Lezcano: “He started to get out a little bit, and he touched my horse. I never crossed the line. I never touched him.”

American Pharoah dug in and took the lead again. It didn’t look easy for the 1-5 favorite. It didn’t look as though he had much left. He had shown the same heart at Churchill Downs, fought to get past Firing Line in the final yards of the Kentucky Derby as Espinoza wildly asked him for more with reins and whip, but the reserve he had on the first Saturday in May was missing.

“After he finally shook Frosted off, I really thought, well, maybe there’s a chance,” said Baffert in the post-race press conference. “He just fought back valiantly, and he just — it wasn’t his day today.”

It was Keen Ice’s day. The maiden winner had finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, third in the Belmont Stakes, second in the Haskell. He was rising, and his rider, following trainer Dale Romans’ instructions to put him in the race, wasn’t about to miss an opportunity for a win.

“I just kept tracking and following with them,” said Javier Castellano. “At some point when turning for home, I saw the horses slow down and start coming back to me so I knew that I had a chance to win the race.”

Keen Ice passed both to win the Travers by three-quarters of a length over American Pharoah in a final time of 2:01.57. The 16-1 shot paid $34.

“Maybe it’s just arrogance, but I felt good about today, I really did,” said Romans. “He had just trained too good. I knew he was going to run really big and I just couldn’t imagine Pharoah taking another step forward.”

He didn’t, if Beyer or TimeformUS speed figures are your measure — he ran at about the same level he has been this year. Keen Ice was given a Beyer speed figure of 106 for the Travers, which would make American Pharoah’s 105, the same as he ran in the Kentucky Derby. TimeformUS rated American Pharoah 128 (Keen Ice 127), in line with his Derby 127.

American Pharoah is consistent — for that matter, so is this crop. Along with Keen Ice, how Frosted and Upstart — fourth in the Travers and third in the Haskell — ran validates the results of earlier races and confirms what so many were saying before the Kentucky Derby about the depth of the this year’s field. Chaos would have been Mid Ocean jumping up for a win; these 3-year-olds are running true to their demonstrated abilities and following form cycles. Yet we’ve come to expect so much of the Triple Crown winner, that a solid second, on a day he clearly he wasn’t feeling at his peak, or didn’t like the track, or got a little hot and bothered by the crowd, is a letdown:

These horses, they will fool you. We tend to become so infatuated with them that we start to believe they are invincible, that all you need to do is put the saddle on them, turn on the ignition and watch them motor around the racetrack on their way to once again dominating those silly enough to get in the starting gate with them. We lose our sense of logic.

But sooner or later, we find out there are no perfect horses.

Dejected owner Ahmed Zayat suggested after the Travers that his homebred colt would be retired. “My gut feeling is if this horse is one percent not the American Pharoah that we cherish, that’s it. The show’s over.”

Mike Watchmaker would be okay with that: “… let’s be honest: The American Pharoah we saw Saturday just was not the same American Pharoah we saw in all of his previous races this year.”

Tim Layden likened the aftermath of the Travers as a muffling of what “has been a racing season defined by living sound.” (What that sounds like.)

Oh, and the winner? His people are celebrating. “Allen told me he never once felt sorry about beating Secretariat,” said Romans to Mike Welsch, referring to the late trainer Allen Jerkens, who won the 1973 Whitney with Onion:

“And I started thinking about Allen and that conversation as soon as my horse crossed the finish line in front of American Pharoah. And you know, I don’t feel sorry either.”

Onions can be sweet.

Betting on Pharoah

American Pharoah parades before the 2015 Haskell

Amanda Duckworth on the American Pharoah effect:

[Monmouth Park] also posted an all-sources handle of $20 million, which is a non-Breeders’ Cup record. The Haskell alone brought in a record $6.54 million, shattering the mark of $4.4 million bet on the 2010 edition. To anyone who questioned why the track bumped the purse of the race from $1 million to $1.75 million, that is your answer. American Pharoah brings in people, betting dollars and a great deal of mainstream exposure. That’s a pretty great trifecta for the sport.

NYRA wants to see that kind of action on the Travers Stakes, and is trying to lure the colt’s connections with a promise to raise the Travers purse to $1.6 million, up from $1.25 million, if American Pharoah follows his Haskell win with a Saratoga appearance. Owner Ahmed Zayat wants to go. “My preference would be to run [next] at Saratoga,” Zayat told Bob Ehalt. “If it’s up to me, it would be the Travers,” he said to Ron Mitchell. “I have made my desires known to my trainer. He knows what I want.” Trainer Bob Baffert says that’s the case, and that Zayat is deferring a decision on the Triple Crown winner’s next race to him. “[T]his is true and accurate statement,” Zayat confirmed with a tweet.

Baffert’s not committing for now: “It’s way too early to say anything.”

This is an interesting little dilemma for owner, trainer, and Coolmore, who will stand the big horse at stud. Sid Fernando’s been dissecting the conflict and incentives via his Twitter stream, discussing the almost-certain “kicker” for winning the Travers (essentially a performance bonus), built into the breeding rights deal Zayat and Coolmore negotiated.

In the scramble for American Pharoah’s next start, the Travers seems to have moved ahead of the Pennsylvania Derby, which is the race I thought he’d point to next, given the likely purse boost, appearance fees for owner and trainer, and Baffert’s lack of interest in running the colt against older horses before the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Parx racing director Sam Elliott has been working hard to sell his race, traveling to Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, and Monmouth Park in pursuit, but Zayat has said “No Penn Derby” and ruled out the Pacific Classic as well — “zero shot!! Timing doesn’t work.” Elliott was at the Haskell on Sunday — I hope he didn’t get the Pennsylvania Derby news on Twitter too.

Mike Pegram, a long-time owner with Baffert, was blunt about the where-next question. “They’ll go where the money is,” he told Ed Zieralski. The Travers’ historic significance plus the added money makes a sweet exacta.

Odds and ends: American Pharoah was given a Beyer speed figure of 109 for the Haskell … Upstart will point to the Travers after running third to the Triple Crown winner on Sunday in his first start since finishing last in the Kentucky Derby. “I was miserably impressed,” trainer Rick Violette said of the Haskell winner … Monmouth reported attendance of 60,983 for Sunday’s race, a figure Chris Rossi calls into question by comparing per-attendee handle for the Haskell since 2000 (chart here, if you follow him on Twitter). This year’s $48.58 is the lowest average in that period, beating the previous low of $65.35 set in 2009. In 2014, the average was $70.29 … you can definitely rule out a possibility that probably hadn’t even occurred to you: The Eclipse Stakes winner Golden Horn will not meet American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup. “It’s a complete no-no, on dirt certainly,” said owner Anthony Oppenheimer.

Saratoga babies: The spreadsheet of 2015 juvenile race starters and winners has been updated through second week results (XLS).

Shore Thing

Alert! American Pharoah has arrived at Monmouth Park for Sunday’s Haskell. Let the beautiful, absurd hoopla begin. Fans were there to greet him at the Atlantic City airport, and an even bigger crowd awaited him at the barn. The Triple Crown winner is about to make his first start since the Belmont Stakes. He looks sculpted, and if possible, even more of a beast than he did just seven weeks ago. Trainer Bob Baffert has worked him three times in 10 days. Tuesday, he breezed four furlongs in :48.80 at Del Mar. July 23, he worked six furlongs in 1:11, more than three seconds faster than the other 11 workers at the distance (a group that included 5-year-old Grade 3 winner Bal a Bali). “He keeps getting stronger,” Baffert said in Tuesday’s NTRA teleconference.

The likely field for the Haskell is Competitive Edge, Keen Ice, Mr. Jordan, Tekton, Top Clearance, Upstart, and War Story. Competitive Edge and Upstart are cross-entered in the Jim Dandy; Tekton is another whose connections are hedging their bets. The decision may now be easier for them — Monmouth announced today that the Haskell purse has been raised to $1.75 million:

Monmouth Park Racetrack has announced a $750,000 purse increase to the William Hill Haskell Invitational, which is to be renewed for the 48th time this Sunday, Aug. 2.

“The Haskell has been called the fourth jewel of the Triple Crown,” said Bob Kulina, president of Darby Development LLC, operators of Monmouth Park Racetrack. “With the Derby purse at $2 million and the Preakness and Belmont going to $1.5 million, it’s only fitting that we join in that mix for our race, which has proven itself the next logical step for 3-year-olds following the Triple Crown.”

The Haskell runner-up will earn more than about as much as the Jim Dandy winner ($350,000/$360,000). Trainer Rick Violette was swayed by the added money, telling David Grening that Upstart will go to New Jersey.

Of course, the purse increase also:

… recognizes the prestige of a Triple Crown winner running at Monmouth.

Ah! The prestige.

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