For the first time in 37 years, a Triple Crown winner is set to descend upon Saratoga Race Course.
After much deliberation, American Pharoah will make his highly anticipated return to the NYRA circuit in Saturday’s Grade 1 Travers, his first start in New York since winning the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes to cap his historic run.
The 1 ¼-mile Travers, worth $1.6 million if American Pharoah makes it to the starting gate and will be aired on NBC from 4-6 p.m. ET.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert for Zayat Stables, American Pharoah became racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978 when he took the June 6 Belmont by 5 ½ lengths. The homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile enjoyed facile victories in the Belmont and the Grade 1 Preakness, in which he skipped to a seven-length triumph over a sloppy track at Pimlico, but was workmanlike in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby. Breaking from post 15 as the 5-2 favorite in the Derby, American Pharoah stalked the pace in third, traveling wide on both turns before grinding his way to the front and inching away to win by a length.
Though he didn’t look invincible at the start of his Triple Crown bid, nor in his career debut when he finished an inauspicious fifth, American Pharoah has already reaffirmed his greatness in one start since his breakthrough victory, notching a dominant win in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on August 2 at Monmouth Park. After a brief respite just shy of two months, the bay colt pressed a wicked pace in the Haskell and drew off decisively at the top of the stretch, going on to prevail by 2 ¼ lengths while geared down in the final eighth of a mile.
“We’re looking forward to watching him run,” said Baffert. “We’re excited. It’s a good field. It would be more like running in the Kentucky Derby. I feel like it will be the same kind of excitement with the people and the horses and everything.
“Everything has to go smooth for him,” Baffert added. “We don’t take anything for granted. We’re coming in there ready. We’re just treating it like it’s another big-time race, which it is. You still need some racing luck.”
Known as the “Graveyard of Champions,” Saratoga has a reputation for being inhospitable to some of racing’s greatest horses – most famously Triple Crown winner Secretariat’s defeat at the hands of Onion in the 1973 Whitney – but American Pharoah brings a rock-solid resume into the Midsummer Derby. The Baffert trainee has won his past eight starts, seven of which came against Grade 1 competition, by a combined 38 lengths. He was made an overwhelming morning-line favorite at 1-5.
“I thought in all his races he’s run pretty well,” said Baffert. “The Del Mar Futurity, when he won that race, that’s when he tipped me off that he was way, way better than usual or anything I’ve ever had. He went two turns and did it pretty handily. The Arkansas Derby, the Kentucky Derby, all of his races have been really just over the top. That’s what surprised me is that he keeps bringing it like he does. I’ve had really good horses that when they put in a great performance it’s hard for them to keep bringing those great performances, and he does. We want to get another great performance out of him.”
American Pharoah, looking to follow in the footsteps of Triple Crown-Travers winner Whirlaway, the only horse to yet accomplish the feat, will be ridden by Victor Espinoza. The pair will leave from post 2.
Last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red will go out for trainer Keith Desormeaux and owners Erich Brehm, Wayne Detmar and Lee Michaels. The son of Afleet Alex won the local prep for the Travers, the Grade 2 Jim Dandy, by a half-length on August 1. The victory was his first of 2015, having finished second in the Grade 2 San Vicente in his seasonal bow on February 1 at Santa Anita Park and second in the Grade 3 Dwyer on July 4 at Belmont. As a 2-year-old, the bay colt finished third behind American Pharoah in the Grade 1 FrontRunner at Santa Anita before rolling home to a 6 ½-length score in the Juvenile.
Keith’s brother, Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux, is named to ride Texas Red, 8-1 on the morning line, from post 4.
Godolphin Racing’s Frosted will attempt to turn the tables on American Pharoah and Texas Red, who he’s encountered in his past three starts. The Tapit colt began his year with a promising second-place finish in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park before faltering in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. The Kiaran McLaughlin trainee appeared poised to run away with the Fountain of Youth at the head of the lane, but tired suddenly and finished fourth, beaten 4 ¾ lengths.
Making his next start in the Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, Frosted quickly redeemed himself. After lagging behind a moderate early tempo, the gray colt swept by the field around the far turn and into the stretch, going on to post a two-length victory. Frosted kept the momentum going in the Kentucky Derby, but could only muster a fourth-place finish after running wide on both turns, and then met American Pharoah again in the Belmont, where he finished second.
In his most recent start, Frosted closed to be second in the Jim Dandy, beaten a half-length by Texas Red. Frosted, the 6-1 second choice on the morning line, will break from post 6 with Joel Rosario.
“We wanted to be in the middle of the pack. I don’t think there’s any bad post positions,” said McLaughlin. “You have to be concerned [about the pace] but our horse is doing great. Joel is going to work out the trip and he’s going to run a big race.”
Another of American Pharoah’s victims, Haskell runner-up Keen Ice, will go out for trainer Dale Romans and owner Donegal Racing. Keen Ice has made steady improvement since debuting last August at Ellis Park, when he finished fourth by 9 ¼ lengths. After breaking his maiden in his second start, the son of Curlin has run exclusively in graded stakes, but had not finished better than third until his second-place finish in the Haskell. He has faced American Pharoah in each of his past three starts, finishing third in the Belmont and seventh in the Derby before his Haskell effort, which brought him within three lengths of the Triple Crown winner.
“He’s one of the few horses I’ve had that I think has improved every day of training of his life since I’ve had him,” said Romans. “He’s getting better and better. We’re getting a little bit closer every time, maybe eventually we’ll catch him.”
Javier Castellano will be aboard Keen Ice, 12-1 on the morning line, from post 7.
Multiple stakes winner Upstart, 15-1 on the morning line, will look to seize his first Grade 1 victory on Saturday for trainer Rick Violette, Jr. The dark bay ridgling has hit the board in all four of five of his previous Grade 1 attempts, finishing second in the Champagne and third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old, and running second in the Florida Derby and third in the Haskell in 2015. The son of Flatter’s lone poor effort in Grade 1 company came when he finished last of 18 in the Kentucky Derby.
“We still are sitting on the fence between running or waiting for [the Pennsylvania Derby at] Parx,” said Violette, who trains Upstart for Ralph Evans and WinStar Farm. “I keep waiting for something to push me one way or the other. The door is still open; we’ll wait until Saturday morning to decide. But my horse is doing terrific, couldn’t be any better, and that’s the reason to keep the door open.”
The meet’s leading rider, Irad Ortiz, Jr., has the mount aboard Upstart and the duo will depart from the rail.
Trained by John Shirreffs for Arnold Zetcher, Smart Transition will hope to follow the path V. E. Day took to victory in the Travers by parlaying a win in the Curlin Stakes into “Midsummer” glory. A son of Smart Strike, Smart Transition flourished at the Spa in the 1 1/8-mile Curlin, drawing off to win by 4 ¾ lengths in the longest race of his career.
“All I can say is, ‘Jim Dandy,'” said Shirreffs. “Gallant Fox, right? He came here as a Triple Crown winner and there was a horse named Jim Dandy that beat him. You know what, I think it’s more than that. It’s going to be a great day for Saratoga.”
Smart Transition will be ridden by Hall of Famer John Velazquez from outermost post 10, and sits at 20-1 on the morning line.
Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve, a 30-1 outsider on the morning line, will look to rebound off poor showings in the Belmont and Grade 2 West Virginia Derby, in which he finished seventh and sixth, respectively. Three starts ago, Tale of Verve launched a belated rally to finish seven lengths behind American Pharoah in the Preakness, which he entered fresh off a maiden score.
Trained by Dallas Stewart for Charles Fipke, Tale of Verve will break from post 8 with Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens in the irons.
Hall of Famer Nick Zito, who has saddled the most Travers runners of any trainer, will be represented by Frammento. The Midshipman colt has made consecutive starts in the Grade 1 Blue Grass, Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Grade 2 Jim Dandy, but failed to record a top-three finish. In his most recent outing, he finished fourth, beaten 11 lengths, in the Jim Dandy.
Frammento, whose lone win came against a field of maidens last year, will have the services of Jose Ortiz from post 5. He sits at 30-1 on the morning line.
Recent maiden graduate Mid Ocean will try his luck for trainer George Weaver and Limestone Thoroughbreds. After an unproductive winter and spring campaign at Gulfstream, the Mineshaft gelding turned in improved efforts over the summer, finishing third in a maiden race at Monmouth before breaking his maiden by 6 ½ lengths on July 14 at Delaware Park in his latest start. At 50-1 on the morning line, he will depart from post 3 with Manny Franco aboard.
Also sitting at 50-1 on the morning line is King of New York from the barn of trainer Ken McPeek. The son of Street Boss has alternated between dirt and turf racing through 13 career starts, and is coming off a third-place finish in the Curlin. He will be ridden by Julien Leparoux from post 9.