Keen Ice overhauled American Pharoah late in the stretch of the Travers Stakes Saturday at Saratoga Race Course. American Pharoah tasted defeat for the first time since his career debut. (All photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Even the mighty can fall.
American Pharoah, seemingly invincible when he emerged as the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years, had his eight-race winning streak abruptly snapped in the 146th Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
A crowd capped at 50,000 fans watched in dismay as the front-running son of Pioneerof the Nile, after fighting off race-long pressure from Frosted, succumbed to hard-charging Keen Ice by three-quarters of a length. Frosted weakened to finish third.
Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah, raised the possibility that the 12th Triple Crown champion competed for the last time.
“My gut is saying if the horse tailed off from the American Pharoah we know, no question we will retire him,” he said. “He doesn’t owe us anything.”
Zayat, who has had a breeding agreement with Coolmore in place for months now, plans to huddle with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert in the upcoming days to determine what is best.
Baffert was not at all prepared to address that issue after a defeat that was so emotional it left his wife, Jill, in tears.
“I want to see how taxing this race was on him and then we’ll sit down and figure out what’s next for him,” Baffert said. “I’m not used to being in this position with him. It’s hard to digest right now.”
This was not the brilliant colt that imposed his will through one start after another. Baffert sensed that in the early going. He had been concerned about running the horse back four weeks after the William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park, even if that race had produced a 2 ¼-length margin against Keen Ice as regular rider Victor Espinoza eased his mount before the finish line.
“It was a gamble; we brought him out here, and he showed all signs he was ready to go,” Baffert said. “You really don’t know until he actually runs in the race, but I could tell he didn’t have the power he usually has.”
Baffert believes a demanding travel schedule for the West Coast-based star, who relished deeper East Coast tracks, might have finally taken a toll.
“We knew we were doing the impossible shipping him back and forth, back and forth,” he said. “It’s sad to see him get beat. I feel bad for him.”
American Pharoah was attempting to join Whirlaway (1941) as the only horses to win the Travers after completing the historic sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
American Pharoah broke sharply and set fractions that were well within his range. He covered the opening quarter in 24.28 seconds, the half in :48.30 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.48. But Baffert said of the conclusion of the 1 ¼-mile contest: “What we saw from him the last three-eighths was just guts, guts and glory.”
KEEN ICE (left) EDGES PAST AMERICAN PHAROAH
Pharoah was sent off as an overwhelming favorite in a field of 10 under Espinoza. He instead absorbed his first defeat since he struggled to a fifth-place finish in his debut at Del Mar on Aug. 9, 2014.
He had rattled off victories in his six previous starts this year, repeatedly jetting from his West Coast base to compete in Arkansas, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and then back to New York, where a police escort awaited him at Albany International Airport on Wednesday.
The rigorous travel and the demanding schedule almost surely contributed to one of the great upsets in the history of the “Mid-Summer Derby.” The outcome added to Saratoga’s unwelcome reputation as the “Graveyard of Champions.”
Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner before Pharoah, appeared to turn back Alydar once more in the Travers only to be disqualified, allowing his game archrival to finally reach the winner’s circle. Gallant Fox, the Triple Crown winner in 1930, was foiled in the Travers by Jim Dandy – at 100-to-1.
Even the mighty Secretariat became suddenly vulnerable here, bowing to Onion in the Whitney in 1973. That shocker had weighed on Baffert, Pharoah’s Hall of Fame trainer. As he pondered the future the morning after his champion’s 5 1/2-length tour de force in the Belmont Stakes, he said, “I don’t want to find any Onions.”
Baffert’s record in the Travers slipped to 1 for 6. He earned his lone win with Point Given in 2001.
Keen Ice won for only the second time in 11 career starts, covering the distance in 2:01.57. He broke his maiden by a head for Donegal Racing last Sept. 6 at Churchill Downs.
Jerry Crawford, who heads Donegal, praised the Zayat family for its willingness to showcase their champion in the Travers. An estimated 18,000 fans turned out to watch Pharoah stretch his legs in a morning gallop on Friday.
“They stamped themselves forever as true sportsmen,” Crawford said.
KEEN ICE LED TO WINNER'S CIRCLE BY JERRY CRAWFORD OF DONEGAL RACING
Also on the Travers card:
Sword Dancer Invitational Stakes (G1): Flintshire overwhelmed the opposition in the Sword Dancer, surging well clear in the stretch under Vincent Cheminaud and powering to a 2 ½-length score as the even-money favorite for trainer Andre Fabre. Flintshire earned a starting spot in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf because the Sword Dancer is part of the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series.
It appears Flintshire’s next challenge will come in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Oct. 4 in France.
“He’s a remarkable horse. He’s just so unbelievably consistent. He’s traveled the world. He’s won in Hong Kong, he’s won in Dubai, and now he’s won here,” said Teddy Gromthorpe, racing manager for owner Juddmonte Farms. “He loves fast ground, a mile and a half, so from that point of view he’s ideal.
“It’s hugely important to get a win like this before the Arc. We’ve got his father, we’ve got his mother, we’ve got his grandmother, we’ve got his sister. The people who work on the farms, the people who race him, this is huge for us.”
NYRA.com King’s Bishop Stakes (G1): Runhappy led from start to finish in a stakes-record-setting victory, which was his fourth win in five career starts. Trained by Maria Borell and ridden by Edgar Prado, Runhappy completed seven furlongs in 1:20.54, the fastest time in the history of the race. Runhappy won by 4 lengths and paid $24.60 for a $2 win bet.
“I’m overwhelmed. I knew he was a good horse or we wouldn’t have bought him up here,” Borell said. “I’m just so lucky to have this opportunity now with this horse. I’d like to thank James McIngvale and his racing manager Laura Wohlers. He’s just an amazing horse.”
Personal Ensign Stakes (G1): Delaware Handicap winner Sheer Drama posted her second straight Grade 1 win with a powerhouse 1 ¼-length victory under Joe Bravo.
The Personal Ensign was a Breeders' Cup Challenge Series "Win and You're In" race for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff.
“She’s getting better as she’s getting older. She’s maturing,” winning trainer David Fawkes said. “She does everything right. We got our ‘Win and You’re In’ and hopefully, we’re on our way to Keeneland now.”
Ballerina Stakes (G1): Unbridled Forever completed a last-to-first rally under John Velazquez to post her second straight win but her first ever in a graded stakes. She had finished in the top three in three previous Grade 1 races and five times in graded stakes before the breakthrough in the Ballerina. Dallas Stewart trains Unbridled Forever for owner-breeder Charles Fipke.
The Ballerina was a Breeders' Cup Challenge Series "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint.
“This is special. Chuck Fipke bred her. I sold him Lemons Forever and he bred this filly,” Stewart said. “She's a great horse. It’s a Grade 1 and he owns the mare and a lot of the family, so it’s big for him.”
Priority One Jets Forego Stakes (G1): Private Zone punched hs ticket to the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint with a dominant 3 3/4-length runaway win in the Forego. He improved to three wins in five starts this season for trainer Jorge Navarro.
“He’s a special horse. He’s all horse,” Navarro said. “I just talked to the owners, and our plan is to train him up to the Breeders’ Cup. I didn't have him last year, but I think he’s getting better and better. The more I have him, the more he shows me.”