Triple Crown-Travers Sweep? It’s No Cinch

American Pharaoh drove to the finish line.

Photo by BILL WINE | Contributing photographer

By the time you started reading this piece, Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah will have made another cross-country journey, going from Southern California to Upstate New York to run in Saturday’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.

For racing fans hopelessly in love with their nearly perfect Triple Crown champion, the race that has become known through the years as the Mid-Summer Derby will be one of the final opportunities to see Zayat’s home-bred colt enter a starting gate. He will be an overwhelming favorite, but Saratoga will be an interesting stop in the homestretch of American Pharoah’s career.

The son of 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneer of the Nile will be only the fourth of the even-dozen Triple Crown winners to compete in the Travers. Calumet Farm’s Whirlaway, the 1941 Derby winner, is the only horse to complete a Triple Crown-Travers sweep. Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown champ, finished first in the Travers but was disqualified and placed second for interfering with arch-rival Alydar, the runner-up who was elevated by track stewards to the top spot. Gallant Fox, winner of the 1930 Triple Crown, was shocked in the Travers by 100-1 shot Jim Dandy in a surprise so enduring that the latter’s name has adorned a key Travers prep race at The Spa since 1964.

Trainer Bob Baffert, still carrying his Triple Crown glow after previously saddling four horses to win two-thirds of the series, won his only Travers with Point Given, who had been a well-beaten fifth in the Derby before he cruised to wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

With Victor Espinoza, unbeaten in eight races aboard the Derby winner, back in saddle, American Pharoah will be an overwhelming favorite on Saturday. But the vagaries of racing should remind the wise there are no pre-ordained results in Thoroughbred racing.

TraversLogo2015_298Along with threats posed by other 3-year-olds entered in Saturday’s race, here are three intangible factors for members of American Pharoah Nation to consider:

• Location, location, location: Saratoga has been the site of so many surprises through the years it was long ago dubbed the “Graveyard of Champions.” Secretariat lost at Saratoga after his greatest of all Triple Crown runs in 1973.

• Distance: After a mystifying defeat last summer in his career debut at Del Mar, American Pharoah has struggled in only one race in eight subsequent starts, all wins: the Kentucky Derby. There is a myriad of good reasons to explain that outing, and remember that the current star fared better in the Derby than eventual Hall of Famers Native Dancer, Damascus, Holy Bull and Point Given, all beaten favorites after enduring the sensory overload that is Derby Day. The Derby and the Travers share the demanding distance of a mile and a quarter, and, while American Pharoah easily won the Belmont Stakes at a mile and a half, the Derby/Travers distance is arguably a tougher test of both stamina and speed. Baffert said American Pharoah did not bring his “A-game” to the Derby, but one could also wonder if 10 furlongs is not exactly the favorite’s cup of tea. It might be worth a couple of bucks to find out.

• Jet lag: The quick trip to New York for the Travers is American Pharoah’s fourth of the year, following a round-trip flight to Arkansas for the Rebel; the Triple Crown roadshow that started with a return to Oaklawn Park and continued to Kentucky, Maryland and New York before his mid-June return to California; and the California-New Jersey round trip for his only post-Triple Crown race in Monmouth Park’s Haskell. Could the air miles take a toll while Pharoah’s on-track work has not?

Regardless of the result, American Pharoah’s Travers will be a wonderful spectacle. Zayat and Baffert have pledged to share their colt with the Pharoah Nation as long as he shows no signs of physical or mental fatigue and regression. So far, so good.

Just over 80 days have passed since American Pharoah secured his Triple Crown. Remember that prior to that run it had been 35 years since U.S. racing fans had enjoyed a Triple Crown winner in action.

Who can guess when it will happen again?

So take this can’t-miss advice for Travers Day: Enjoy the horse and the moment. VT