Edited NYRA release:
Showing no signs of fatigue or sorrow from his first loss in more than a year, Triple Crown champion American Pharoah met with some lucky fans one last time Sunday morning before saying goodbye to Saratoga Race Course.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert led American Pharoah to a fence outside his barn on the main track backstretch, where the colt obligingly accepted carrots and stood for pictures before reluctantly being led back to his stall. He is scheduled to depart early Monday morning for California via Kentucky.
“I’m happy with the way he looked today. I could tell he’s not upset,” Baffert said. “You could see when he was out here, he was himself. He was his sweet self.”
After battling with fellow Grade I winner Frosted from the starting gate to the top of the stretch, American Pharoah didn’t have enough left to hold off late-running Keen Ice in Saturday’s Grade I, $1.6 million Travers. The bay Pioneerof the Nile colt had won eight straight races, seven of them Grade I, including his historic sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes this spring.
The final time for the 1 ¼-mile Mid-Summer Derby was 2:01.57, the fastest since Point Given won in 2:01.4 in 2001 – Baffert’s lone Travers victory in five tries. Last summer, Baffert finished last in the Travers with eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern.
“It’s unfortunate when you get beat like that. I thought he tried so hard under the circumstances and he was still trying to win,” Baffert said. “He could have given it up. He could have done like Bayern and said, ‘Adios. I’ll see you in the next dance.’ He just dug and dug.”
Baffert did not second-guess the decision to bring American Pharoah to Saratoga, where 15,000 people showed up to watch him gallop the morning before the Travers, his second race since the Triple Crown. On August 2, he won the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park.
“I wasn’t disappointed with his race. We were all sad. We really wanted him to win. He’s been so great to us; that’s why I’m not disappointed in him. He tried. If I had to do it again, I would have brought him here. I’m glad I brought him. I think racing needed something like this,” Baffert said.
“It’s amazing, what he’s done for racing. Everybody in town afterward, when they saw me they said, ‘We’re sorry. We feel so bad for you, Bob, but thanks for bringing that horse.’ It almost ended well. Almost. We almost pulled it off.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Travers, owner Ahmed Zayat wondered if he had pushed American Pharoah too hard and said if he shows even the slightest sign of regression, that he would be retired. Baffert said Sunday that no decision has been made.
“Mr Zayat is a very emotional man. We were all pretty disappointed. We were like in shock. We were surprised he got beat. We weren’t really prepared for a losing speech. When we hit it, it was like, we’ve just got to get through this,” Baffert said. “Basically, we’ll let the horse tell us what he’s doing. I really don’t know what the thought is. I know [Zayat will] be going back and forth. He brought him up here. You really have to thank him. He wanted to share him. He’s a sportsman for bringing him up here and sharing him with Saratoga. He did it for racing, and it didn’t work out. The horse was just valiant in defeat and he was trying so hard. He was empty, empty, at the top of the stretch and he was still trying to win. I still thought there was a chance.”
Baffert said if American Pharoah does run again, he would likely train up to the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic October 31 at Keeneland. He will be retired at the end of his 3-year-old campaign and stand stud at Coolmore.
“We’ll just get him back there and let him chill for a little bit. He needs to chill. He’s been running, and he got a little hot yesterday, which he usually doesn’t get hot. Sometimes it means the racing might be getting to him a little bit. As you saw, the way he looks today he looks pretty good,” Baffert said. “We’ll just play it by ear. Ahmed Zayat, it’s his horse. My job is if I see something, if he were to come up with something I didn’t like, then I’d tell him. Nothing has shown up today. We’re glad that he looked fine and he’s healthy. I didn’t see any problem there.
“He looks great today,” he said. “According to the sheet guys, he was the play against. He was supposed to bounce, which he did. That’s what they do. He could come back and freshen up and run. I don’t think he tailed off; I think he just didn’t bring his ‘A’ game. If you look at him, he still looks pretty healthy. He doesn’t look like a tired horse.”
When the time does come to say goodbye, Baffert said it will be difficult on the entire team, including wife Jill, son Bode, assistant Jimmy Barnes and exercise rider Jorge Alvarez.
“I think we’re all going to cry. We just don’t know. I think Ahmed was very emotional. It was tough to see him lose. It’s going to be tough to let go,” he said. “But, we’ve both said that if we see something where he’s just tailing off or something like that, that he needed more time, that we’d make that call. Right now, I just haven’t heard. He could have won (the Travers) and he could have pulled the plug. There’s a lot of rumors out there but I don’t hear any of those.
“Sometimes, you feel like he’s invincible, but they all get beat,” he said. “There’s no horse that’s ever done it like he’s done it. I’ve never had a horse that could bring performance after performance after performance. I’ve had horses throw a big performance, but they can’t keep it going. He almost did it.”
* * *
Keen Ice’s victory in Saturday’s
Travers Stakes was so cool that trainer Dale Romans’ smart phone actually froze.
“It’s been overwhelming since last night,” he said while standing outside the barn and still soaking in post-race glory. “I’ve been in a lot of big events and won a lot of big races, but the lingering effect of this one is bigger than (winning) the Preakness or any of them. I had so many calls my phone froze up and I haven’t been able to use it since last night. I finally got it working late this morning. I know everybody thinks I’m ignoring them, but it wouldn’t work.”
Romans, an Eclipse Award-winning trainer who has experienced more valleys than peaks this year until winning the prestigious Travers, praised Triple Crown champion American Pharoah for the work he did to finish second. He also gave Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert high marks.
“I think American Pharoah ran his race. His speed figure was really good,” said Romans, who added he and Baffert spoke for 30 minutes last night. “Bob is a class act and a sportsman. He was proud of his horse, as he should have been. He knew what he was up against coming over here. I thought he had his horse well prepared and that he ran well. He took the worst of it getting hooked on the lead and had to work. But great horses have to earn it. They have a target on their back.”
Donegal Racing’s color bearer, who had lost to American Pharoah in three straight Grade I’s before the Travers – the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Haskell – just walked the shedrow this morning.
“He was laying down last night before I left and that’s the first time I had seen that, so he was tired,” said Romans. “I think he really got a lot out of the race. I’d never seen him tired, but he’s tired now, and with every right to be so.”
Romans said that for now the long term plan is to train Keen Ice up to the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the short term, he will be on the same plane with American Pharoah and Baffert’s pony, Smokey, headed for Lexington, Ky. early Monday morning. Keen Ice will deplane there and van to Romans’ stable at Churchill Downs while Baffert’s pair fly on to Southern California.
Even though the Travers winner won’t be in Saratoga, his legacy will live on. The Spring Street Deli has already added the “Keen Ice” to the menu.
“It’s Wonder white bread, bologna, Velveeta cheese and Miracle Whip. That’s a hillbilly sandwich straight from South Lousiville. The blue collar horse needs a blue collar sandwich,” quipped Romans.
* * *
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin reported Sunday morning that Travers third-place finisher Frosted came out of the race in fine fettle and may point to the Grade I, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational on October 3 at Belmont Park.
Frosted, owned by Godolphin Racing, found himself in an unusual position on Saturday pressing the early pace set by American Pharoah. The gray son of Tapit dueled with the Triple Crown winner for much of the 1 ¼-mile journey, even putting a head in front as they left the far turn before succumbing in the final eighth of a mile. He finished three lengths behind winner Keen Ice and 2 ¼ lengths behind American Pharoah.
“He’s in good shape,” said McLaughlin. “He certainly put in a good effort; it just wasn’t exactly the game plan. I was excited at the quarter pole, we were head and head. I thought maybe we were going to get lucky again, but it didn’t work out. He ran a big race.”
McLaughlin was forced to call an audible when, two races before the Travers, Frosted’s jockey, Joel Rosario, was injured in a spill and forced to take off his mounts. After carefully weighing his options, McLaughlin went with Jose Lezcano, who rode Wedding Toast to victory for McLaughlin and Godolphin in the Grade I Ogden Phipps on June 6 at Belmont.
“When Wedding Toast ran (in the Ogden Phipps), I told [Jose] to lay third,” said McLaughlin. “He broke, he (went to the lead), and he kept going and won by five. This time, it looked like American Pharoah would be on the lead, maybe Upstart would press him, and we’d be third to fifth. We always break well, but just try to sit third to fifth. He took it upon himself to go and engage him early because no one else was there.
“It’s so tough to lose your jockey 30 minutes before the race,” McLaughlin added. “Joel has been working him since March and knows him so well and rides him so well. We didn’t want to engage (American Pharoah) that early but Jose rode him well. It was unfortunate for us and maybe for American Pharoah, too.”
* * *
Grade II Jim Dandy winner Texas Red has emerged from his fifth-place finish in Saturday’s
Travers in good condition, according to Julie Clark, Keith Desormeaux’s Saratoga-based assistant trainer.
Clark reported that nothing appeared to be amiss with the Afleet Alex colt, who bumped the gate at the start of the race and seemed to lack his usual kick in the stretch, ultimately finishing 11 ¾ lengths behind winner Keen Ice.
“He seems good,” she said. “He certainly left us with a few questions after yesterday. I mean, they don’t fire every time but we obviously expected a very different effort out of him. There’s nothing obvious, we even had a vet take a look at him and didn’t find anything. I guess we’ve got to chalk it up to ‘just not his day,’ which is great but disappointing at the same time.”
Texas Red kept to his regular post-race routine, walking the shedrow and grazing outside of the barn Sunday morning. Clark described the colt’s demeanor as “business as usual. (He’s) a little tired, obviously, and resting but that’s about it.”