American Pharoah: first defeat since his debut last yearPICTURE: Getty Images
Pharoah suffers shock defeat behind Keen Ice
Report: USA, Saturday
Saratoga: Travers Stakes (Grade 1) 1m2f, dirt, 3yo
A TRULY dramatic race ended with a crushing blow as Triple Crown hero American Pharoah became the latest high-profile victim to fall prey to the curse of the 'graveyard of champions' in a shock defeat in the 146th running of the Travers Stakes.
Owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat suggested his "gut feeling" was to retire American Pharoah after, much to the dismay of a raucous crowd of 50,000, he went down by three-quarters of a length to 16-1 shot Keen Ice (Dale Romans/Javier Castellano), who rallied strongly from mid-division.
Sent off 7-20 favourite, American Pharoah was harried throughout by Godolphin's Frosted, whom he finally mastered in the stretch - only to be run down in agonising fashion by a horse whom he had easily handled four weeks previously when they met in the Haskell Invitational.
Zayat was so rocked by the loss that his immediate response was to suggest the horse may have run his last race. "My gut's saying if the horse shows us that he's not the Pharoah I know, then there's no question in my mind what I think is to retire him," Zayat said, speaking in a post-race press conference before consulting with trainer Bob Baffert. "He doesn't owe anybody anything."
At the end of his racing career, American Pharoah is set to retire to Coolmore's US arm Ashford. Asked whether that might come sooner rather than later, Baffert said: "I don't know. I wanted to see how taxing this race was on him. This is something we have to sit and figure out. I'm not really used to being in the position with him, so it's sort of hard to digest right now."
Graveyard of champions
Saratoga may be North America's most beloved venue, but it is also notorious as the scene for some of the biggest shocks in US racing history. The legendary Man o'War suffered the sole defeat of his magnificent career when he was beaten by the appropriately named Upset at Saratoga in 1919; Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox went down to 100-1 shot in Dandy in the 1930 Travers. Even the great Secretariat succumbed, outpointed by Onion in the 1973 Whitney.
Now American Pharoah has joined this litany of defeat as his sequence of eight straight victories, among them the first Triple Crown sweep for 37 years, was brought to an end. Ironically, the horse who beat him, Keen Ice, was also ending his own eight-race streak: an eight-race losing streak, that is, his not having won since breaking his maiden in September last year.
How the champion lost
Breaking from post two, American Pharoah was sent straight to the front by Victor Espinoza. But although he was able to set even fractions at a reasonable pace (24.28s, 48.30s), there was to be no easy lead as Belmont Stakes runner-up Frosted - ridden by Jose Lezcano after Joel Rosario was injured in an earlier spill - sat on the leader's haunches.
The pair quickened things as they approached the far turn, and the faster mid-race splits (23.18s, 23.60) reveal where the damage was done. Espinoza had to drive American Pharoah as Frosted, a sticky customer, came upsides at the far turn and even got his head in front at the top of the stretch; the champion fought back gamely but both horses had been softened up by their battle and crawled home in the final furlong, where late-running Keen Ice rallied strongly down the middle of the track.
All heart, American Pharoah struggled gamely to hold on but Keen Ice swept past in the final strides, stopping the clock in 2m01.57s - the fastest time for the race since Bernardini in 2006. Frosted weakened back to third, more than two lengths farther back, with Upstart fourth ahead of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red.
'He was empty'
"I want to congratulate the connections of Keen Ice for a great win," said Baffert. "I think Pharoah, down the backside, he was struggling a little bit. I could tell by Victor's body language that he didn't have the power that he usually has. What we saw the last three-eighths was just guts.
"After he finally shook Frosted off, I thought that maybe there's a chance," he added. "You could tell he was empty. He just fought back valiantly but it wasn't his day today. You really don't know. We gambled; we brought him up here. He showed us all the signs that he was ready to go. You really don't know until they actually run."
Perhaps the effect of a long, hard season featuring no fewer than 13 plane trips and seven races in six months at six different tracks was taking its toll on American Pharoah.
"He was not the same like when I've always been riding before," said Espinoza. "When he went to the gate I noticed he was sweating a little bit and he never had even a tiny bit of sweat before.
"Once I broke I put him right on the lead and the pace was not too fast; it was good. I felt like from the five-eighths pole, his energy level was not the same as it was before. He was not as strong as I'm used to.
"He got around there but not quick enough. Turning for home, he was still trying so hard and I opened up two, three lengths, but I felt like it was not quick enough to get to the wire with the other horse coming on the outside."
Before the race, Keen Ice's Kentucky-based trainer Dale Romans had cheekily thanked the New York Racing Association for capping the Travers crowd at 50,000 so more people would not be there to boo Keen Ice when the Curlin colt beat American Pharoah.
"I thought from the early fractions they might be going a little slow, but you can't really tell from the times always, it's how they're doing it," said Romans.
"So watching my horse, they looked like they were really running and they were working, and I could see my horse was getting through on the inside, like we needed to be, and we got the tip-out at the right point. Then he switched to his right lead and had dead aim on them. And he just wore 'em down."
Romans, though, paid tribute to the runner-up. "American Pharoah's legacy is not tarnished in any way," he said. "Secretariat got beat, Seattle Slew got beat, Affirmed got beat. They are great sportsmen for keeping him running and taking a chance with him. He has run very hard all year and he ran a very good race today. He was pressed, [Frosted] took it to him, and we were fortunate to be running behind."
Castellano, who was riding his fifth Travers winner, confirmed the shape of the race had played into his hands. "Turning for home, at the three-eighths pole, I saw those two horses head-to-head and I said, 'That's a good sign.'
"When I saw the quarter-pole, I was getting closer to him, and I didn't see him take off. I saw those two horses backing up to me really quick and that's when I thought I had it.
"That's horse racing. Anything can happen in horse racing, that's what makes this a great game. American Pharoah is a great horse, taking nothing away from him."