For followers of American Pharoah, the first horse to sweep the U.S. Triple Crown in 37 years, the wisdom of the adage was underscored last Saturday in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The upstate New York track lived up to its foreboding status as â€œGraveyard of Championsâ€ when Donegal Racingâ€™s Keen Ice swept past the Bob Baffert-trained American Pharoah in the final yards to win the one-and-a-quarter-mile race for 3-year-olds.
The result is, so far, American racingâ€™s biggest upset of 2015.
The loss by Ahmed Zayatâ€™s homebred colt was his first since a career-opening loss last summer at Del Mar. It snapped a seven-race winning streak that many on Pharoahâ€™s overflowing bandwagon assumed would continue to grow until a planned career finale in the $5 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic on October 31 at Keeneland.
Despite much hand-wringing among members of the American Pharoah nation and some media representatives, many of whom flooded Twitter after the Travers, the loss by the Triple Crown winner was not the end of the world. After all, the sun still rises six years after the previously perfect Zenyatta was beaten fair and square by Blame in the 2010 Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs. With any luck, it will continue to brighten the Eastern sky once weâ€™ve had time to digest the Travers result for a few weeks.
Regular readers in this spot are often reminded tracks run races for a reason: to determine a winner. In the best of scenarios, factors converge to create final results on a given day, and in the best of scenarios, favorites win races a little more than 30 percent of the time.
In the run-up to this yearâ€™s Kentucky Derby, many observers proclaimed â€“ and I was part of the chorus â€“ that the current crop of 3-year-old Thoroughbreds was among the best in years. When American Pharoah struggled to win the Kentucky Derby, that opinion appeared validated. But the Pharoah then completed the first Triple Crown romp since 1978 to separate himself from the pack.
Well before the Derby, Louisville-born trainer Dale Romans said Keen Ice was his best prospect to win the Run for the Roses. It was no idle boast, for Romans had flirted with winning Americaâ€™s greatest race with strong runs by Paddy Oâ€™Prado, third behind Super Saver in the muddy 2010 Derby; eventual Preakness winner Shackleford, fourth to Animal Kingdom in the 2011 Derby; and Dullahan, third in Orbâ€™s 2011 Kentucky Derby triumph.
Prior to the Travers, Keen Ice had visited the winnerâ€™s circle only once in 10 starts, but his improving performances had validated his quality and underscored his trainerâ€™s faith at every turn. He had finished a troubled seventh to American Pharoah in the Derby, then ran a solid third to the Triple Crown winner in the Belmont and a hard-charging second to Pharoah in the Haskell Invitational. The latter effort merits added scrutiny given Keen Iceâ€™s Travers breakthrough.
The third and fourth place finishers, respectively, behind Keen Ice and American Pharoah in the Travers were familiar faces. Frosted, who pushed American Pharoah through a rugged and fast second half-mile in the Travers, and Upstart were strong pre-Triple Crown brand names.
As American Pharoah seemed to improve through the Triple Crown and beyond, the other Triple Crown runners also stepped forward, but their progress was obscured by the smoke from American Pharoahâ€™s Triple Crown fireworks.
Have those horses closed the gap on American Pharoah, or did Americaâ€™s horse simply have an off-day? Baffert will work to figure that out over the next few days.
But in his Saratoga setback, American Pharoah joined legendary Man Oâ€™ War, who suffered his only career loss at The Spa when he was beaten by Upset in the 1920 Sanford; 1946 Triple Crown winner Assault, shocked by 100-1 shot Jim Dandy in that yearâ€™s Travers; and the mighty Secretariat, who followed his mythic Triple Crown run with a loss to the inelegantly-named Onion in Saratogaâ€™s Whitney, on the long roster of fallen favorites at Saratoga.
Thatâ€™s not bad company, and the guess here is that American Pharoahâ€™s loss in the Travers will look better with the dual benefits of time and hindsight. Itâ€™s very possible that Baffert will learn something from his disappointing visit to Saratoga that will help should American Pharoah stay on the track (and away from the breeding shed) and repair a minimally-tattered reputation with an attempt at career-ending glory in a Halloween treat at Keeneland.
Photo by AMBER CHALFINÂ | Contributing Photographer