American Pharoah deserves a better Last Hurrah

Alan Truex

It’s easy to understand if American Pharoah’s owner is about to retire the only Triple Crown winner in 37 years.  Ahmed Zayat said after his bay colt finished a hard-fought second in the Travers Stakes at history-rich Saratoga Springs: “My gut feeling is to retire him.”

His bean-counting brain may be telling him the same thing.

Coolmore International, the huge conglomerate that owns the breeding rights to American Pharoah, wants him to retire now.  His stud career is scheduled to begin next January, and there’s no need to risk his breaking a leg and getting euthanized before he loses his virginity.

Zayat continually says his priority is the legacy.  Saturday’s second place in the Travers doesn’t tarnish it that much.  Redemption would be full if Pharoah can rebound with a win in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, Oct. 31 at Keeneland, Ky.

Meanwhile, racing fans torture themselves with what happened Saturday at Saratoga and what might have been. 

American Pharoah’s trainer, the white-mopped Bob Baffert, did not want to enter a race less than four weeks after the 1 1/8-mile Haskell Invitational on the Jersey Shore.  AP has raced seven times – all long-distance stakes – in 5 ½ months.  It’s a full season for a 21st-century racehorse.

Baffert preferred following the Haskell – Pharoah’s tenth consecutive victory – with the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 19.  The extra three weeks of rest would have freshened him for a race that would be the perfect stepping stone to the Classic six weeks later.

But Zayat saw Saratoga as being more legacy-friendly than the Parx.

Baffert should have left for New York a day or two after the Haskell and given the colt R&R at the place he would next compete.

The Travers was not convenient for Baffert, because it lured him far from his base in Southern California.  Had he shipped directly from Monmouth to Saratoga, he would have abandoned all his horses and his ownership connections in LA.

To which I say, So what?  Mike Pegram, Jim Rome and his other clients would have understood if Baffert had decided to focus on what some Triple Crown champions of the past failed to do, win the Travers that same year.  Gallant Fox, Secretariat and Affirmed had all met defeat at the storied Graveyard of Champions.

There are reasons for Saratoga’s lethality.  It has high humidity and an unusually deep surface, somewhat like Belmont Park and entirely different from the hard dry runways of Southern California. 

Monmouth, where Pharoah thrived last month, is an anomaly among eastern tracks, with a fast surface swept by ocean breeze.

Baffert’s colt did not arrive at Saratoga until three days before the race.  He had a long coast to coast flight, with a stop, and then a lengthy van ride to remote Saratoga, where a British army 2 ½ centuries ago was cut off and captured by an alliance of rebellious Americans and Native Americans.

By staying home too long and not allowing a work at Saratoga, Baffert gave the home field advantage to Keen Ice, who won the Travers, and Frosted, third after wearing out Pharoah in a rare backstretch duel.

Dale Romans worked Keen Ice twice on the Saratoga track.  Kieran McLaughlin has been training Frosted at the Spa since July.

“We knew we were doing the impossible, shipping him back and forth, back and forth,” Baffert said.  “He didn’t have the power he usually has.” 

Baffert’s defenders might argue that he had no barn in New York, but fellow trainer John Terranova offered to give some of his space to the world’s greatest racehorse.  No doubt Saratoga Race Course would have done everything possible to make Baffert and his horse comfortable.

As it turned out, the horse was anything but comfortable in the paddock, notwithstanding  all the raving by NBC commentators on how wonderful he looked.  A patch of white appeared between the legs.  Kidney sweat, something the TV folks never discuss but is a sure sign the horse is not fully primed for a race.

True, American Pharoah was kidney-sweating before he ran away with the Haskell.  That still doesn’t make it a good sign.  His jockey, Victor Espinoza, said the colt was “a little sweaty.”

I say he was a lot sweaty, and living in Texas, I know sweat. 

Keen Ice and Frosted were not sweating, and not hesitating to engage the 1-5 Phavorite.  They had hung back in the Haskell, just as they had in the Belmont Stakes.   But this time Frosted, with Jose Lezcano subbing for the injured – and less aggressive – jockey Joel Rosario, pushed Pharoah from the start.  They went shoulder to shoulder for much of the race.

After a half mile Espinoza could feel his horse weakening under the pressure.  But as Baffert observed, “he fought valiantly” to put away Frosted in the stretch, only to have the victory fall to Keen Ice, a plodder with staying power who’s been improving steadily since May.

Baffert has pronounced American Pharoah unharmed by the Travers and ready to run again.  But a loss in the Breeders’ Cup would mean the horse ends his career with a two-race losing streak.  Zayat shudders to think of that happening.  Superhorse no more.

Still, the legacy is missing something if the horse never faces anyone older than 3.  After Affirmed won the Triple Crown, his owner, Louis Wolfson, said it was too soon to proclaim immortality.  “I want to run him at 4 before I call him great overall,” Wolfson cautioned.

In the 31 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, 3-year-olds have won only 10 times.  It’s something like underclassmen playing a football game against upper classmen.

Winning the Triple Crown and the Classic in the same year would bring veneration as a Grand Slammer, creating the most special of sports niches.  This would be a much more memorable Last Hurrah than what we saw at Saratoga.  It would bring redemption to both American Pharoah and his trainer.

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