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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.

Reality

This may be the truest paragraph in Kay Reindl’s appreciation of horse racing:

The racegoer has made a pact with himself. He knows he’s going to lose more often than he’ll win. He knows that most of the time, he’s going to see ordinary horses doing ordinary things. But he also knows that every once in awhile, he’s going to hit that big payout. And he’s going to see a horse do something that makes him or her seem chosen …

I’ve been thinking about this pact, because racing fans are on a winning streak right now. We’re in that golden glow of our longshots coming in and photos going our way. We have a Triple Crown winner, and he’s racing in the Travers. A two-time champion just became the first distaffer to ever win the Pacific Classic, all but guaranteeing her a third Eclipse title. Wise Dan seems to be his old self and ready to run. The handicap division has bounced back from losses earlier this year with popular Whitney winner Honor Code atop it. It will end, because all winning streaks do. But let’s enjoy the glow as long as it lasts.

8/26/15 Related: “I can’t remember a time when the game seemed more alive. The glow from the Triple Crown has lasted all summer” (DRF+).

“Jess’s Dream is a reality,” said announcer Larry Collmus as Rachel Alexandra’s first foal won his debut, a nine-furlong maiden special at Saratoga on Monday:

The 3-year-old Curlin colt broke slow, fell behind the field by more than dozen lengths, went wide. It wasn’t looking good as he loped along through the first three quarters in 1:13.96 (Trakus time). “I was hoping that he would just hit the board,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Then rider John Velazquez asked him to go: “At the half-mile pole I started getting after him and he started catching up to horses,” said Velazquez. “Once he caught up to the group, he knew it was time to run.” Jess’s Dream went from last to first, ran the final furlong in :12.03, and earned a Beyer speed figure of 90 for the win. TimeformUS gave him a speed figure of 106. McLaughlin said the colt’s next race would likely be an allowance at Belmont.

Where are the Women?

My most popular tweet on August 17, 2013, featuring a link to a Teresa Genaro column in the Saratogian about women in racing

Two years ago, Teresa Genaro wrote about the poor representation of women in racing. She’s back this week with an update of little progress, in a Pink Sheet column that concludes with this indictment:

Yet when it comes to putting panels together, or hiring executives, or filling board vacancies, women seem to be elusively difficult to find.

If the problem is a dearth of women on leadership pathways in the industry, current executives should be asking themselves why, and what they are doing to cultivate women and bring them into the sport, as other industries have long done and continue to do.

Instead, racing seems content, for the most part, to pander to stereotypes, to view women as decorations rather than as customers, and to overlook them when putting people in front of microphones and in board rooms.

How many times does this have to be said? (That’s a rhetorical question.) How can we do better? (That’s not.) The issue isn’t specific to racing — it regularly flares up in media and technology (the other industries I closely follow). Does racing need some equivalent of the VIDA Count? (Would be just a start.)

To anyone who scoffs that diversity matters, know this — diversity drives market growth. As the American population becomes more diverse, diversity is only going to increase in importance to any industry’s long-term survival.

Related: “NYRA Board less diverse than GOP primary field.”

Taking the Blame

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas tightens the girth on Take Charge Brandi in the Saratoga paddock before the 2015 Test Stakes

After Take Charge Brandi finished last in the Test Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday — the 2014 juvenile filly champion’s first start coming off an injury — trainer D. Wayne Lukas said the problem was all him:

“It was a bad training job,” Lukas said inside his office on the Oklahoma Training Track on Wednesday morning. “I misread her. I thought she was a lot tighter. She threw up a (four-furlong) 48 (-second) training work on the Oklahoma, and I thought, ‘Damn! She is way ahead of schedule.’ So, I backed up a little bit on her and I just misread her.”

The trainer also told Mike Kane:

“[S]he was dog-tired when she finished [in the Test]. She blew out of there and ran as far as I conditioned her … I wish had pushed her a little bit more and had her more ready,” Lukas said. “But the good news is that it’s fixable.”

She’s pointing to the Cotillion at Parx on September 19.

8/16/15 Addendum: Take Charge Brandi is back to work, breezing five furlongs on the Oklahoma track in 1:00.90, the fastest of four at the distance.

The Handicappers

How we talk about women in racing — an ongoing series. Today’s entry begins with Scott Raymond’s appreciation for Saratoga, which includes well-deserved praise for NYRA’s announcer and in-house handicapping team:

Yes, this is your NYRA crew like we just experienced at Belmont, but they deserve credit for adding to the Saratoga experience. They are among the best in the business. You have Larry Collmus, arguably the best active announcer in horse racing. Mike Beer, Andy Serling, and all the guys on Talking Horses do a great job. They are horseplayers; they aren’t talking heads. And Maggie Wolfendale in the paddock provides solid insight. Her husband is a trainer and she has experience as an exercise rider. She’s not just a young, pretty face they put on camera. Her insight from the paddock is key, especially in analyzing younger horses and first-time starters.

Only Maggie Wolfendale’s professional ability is defined in relation to another person and physical appearance. For fun, let’s rewrite a couple of sentences:

You have Larry Collmus, arguably the best active announcer in horse racing. His wife is a trainer. He’s not just a hot, sexy voice they put on mic. Mike Beer, Andy Serling, and all the guys on Talking Horses do a great job. Beer’s significant other is a jockey. Serling’s mother is a steward. They’re horseplayers; they’re not just handsome faces they put on camera.

It’s obvious that no disrespect was meant to Wolfendale, but it’s a good example of how a compliment can display the unconscious bias that women couldn’t possibly be good handicappers in their own right.

Sometimes the bias isn’t so unconscious:

“A lot of people see me and think my husband is picking my card, but I play my own,” [Jeannie] King said. “We don’t even sit in the same room when we’re playing.”

Judy Wagner, winner of the 2001 National Handicapping Championship, and the first horseplayer appointed to the NTRA board of directors, heard much the same when she began going to handicapping contests.

For the record, King has finished fourth in the NHC, and Wolfendale was a great handicapper before marrying the trainer!

See also:

Which was in response to this “joke”:

(h/t @superterrific)

2015 Whitney

Breaking from the gate in the 2015 Whitney

Jockey Javier Castellano gives thanks for the winning the 2015 Whitney with Honor Code

Honor Code wears the Whitney winner's garland of Marylou roses

Connections of Whitney winner Honor Code leave the track with smiles

Honor Code wins the 2015 Whitney at Saratoga, earning a Beyer speed figure of 113 and a TimeformUS speed figure of 125.

MGC Grants Suffolk Days

We haven’t seen the last of live racing at Suffolk Downs yet. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted 4-1 on Thursday to approve the track’s application to host three days of racing on September 5, October 3, and October 31. It also approved a request for $1.2 million in purse monies from the Racehorse Development Fund to support daily purses of $500,000. Conditions are on Equibase, and include stakes for Massachusetts-bred horses and races written for horses who started at the East Boston track in 2014.

Suffolk Dates on MGC Agenda

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission takes up Suffolk Downs’ application for three days of living racing this year once again on Thursday — a vote on the three-day plan and a discussion of the 2016 racing season are on the agenda for the MGC meeting that begins at 10:30 AM. The track is amending its requested dates to September 5, October 3, and October 31.

Lynne Snierson reports for the Blood-Horse that there will be no lease deal with the Stronach Group to run a full meet at Suffolk Downs — the scenario sketched by trainer Billy Lagorio at the Commission’s meeting two weeks ago, prompting a delay on the application then:

“I can say definitively that we will not have an arrangement whereby The Stronach Group will lease or operate racing here,” Suffolk Downs chief operating officer Chip Tuttle told the Blood-Horse Aug. 5.

Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of The Stronach Group and a Boston native who began his career as a jockey at the once-thriving New England tracks, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Tuttle and Ritvo talked on July 29 about any potential Stronach Group interest in running racing in East Boston. They had no further discussion. Ritvo did speak with the Boston Globe for a July 30 article, politely shutting down the idea of a Stronach-managed meet in the near future. “Boston is a very lucrative market and we’re interested,” he told reporter Sean Murphy. “We’re open to anything, but it seems like a stretch to get it done immediately.”

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).

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