Every now and then, a magical race, one to treasure long after others fade from memory, comes along. That is the best way to describe last year’s Travers Stakes and everything associated with it.
For those connected to American Pharoah, the experience last summer at Saratoga Race Course still gives off good vibrations even though their Triple Crown winner absorbed a rare defeat. For Dale Romans, then the trainer of Keen Ice, the Mid-Summer Derby brought one of his sweetest victories in a distinguished career.
“I would not change anything. I have no regrets.” — Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah
In a sense, American Pharoah did win for losing. He displayed the heart of a champion when he fought off Frosted after they dueled through the early stages of the 1 ¼-mile contest. He was much more the victim of difficult travel and an even more grueling schedule than anything else when he succumbed to Keen Ice’s resolute stretch run.
“Even after he lost, people were coming and applauding us and saying he lost nothing in respect,” said owner Ahmed Zayat.
If Zayat could do it again, he insisted he would.
“I would not change anything,” he said. “I have no regrets.”
Zayat’s intention was to showcase the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years, to graciously allow fans to enjoy him as much as he was. Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was the perfect setting for that.
The sight of an estimated 15,000 fans turning out to watch American Pharoah gallop the morning before the Travers was one to remember as children perched on the shoulders of their parents to peer at greatness.
“It’s a sight that had never been seen before,” Zayat said. “It’s a lasting memory.”
As much as trainer Bob Baffert worried before the race that American Pharoah might not be at his best, he, too, has no regrets.
“I would do it again,” he said. “It was a great experience. It’s a great racing town.”
Baffert knew there was no margin for error in the Travers. There never is. And he sensed in the days leading up to the race that Pharoah might not be at his best. He was a little too quiet for his liking.
“You’re going to get beaten if you’re tailing,” he said. “Pharoah was tailing off a little bit on me.”
Romans, too, could sense that the 12th Triple Crown champion was vulnerable. He could see it after American Pharoah coasted home ahead of Keen Ice in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. How horses gallop out can foretell what might be to come in their next start. It sure did in this case.
“When we went past him galloping out, he didn’t re-engage us,” Romans said. “I thought he might be a little tired.”
Keen Ice had won only once in 10 previous starts. As Romans sees it, he simply caught Pharoah at the right place and at the right time.
“We peaked. We were at the top of our bell curve and he had come down a little bit,” Romans said. “We got an assist from Frosted, and it all worked out.”
Given Pharoah’s enormous popularity, Romans wondered how fans would react to the upset as jockey Kent Desormeaux guided Keen Ice toward the winner’s circle. Surely this was an unpopular victory. Would they be booed?
“They cheered American Pharoah and us,” Romans said. “That was a good feeling about the game and what we do, that people are so knowledgeable and have so much respect for these animals.”