Known as the “Graveyard of Champions,” Saratoga Race Course again lived up to its moniker on Saturday when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah came up three-quarters of a length short behind 16-1 longshot Keen Ice in the Grade 1, $1.6 million Travers.
American Pharoah entered the 146th edition of the Travers having won eight straight races including the Triple Crown series – the first time the feat was accomplished since Affirmed in 1978 – and already had amassed seven Grade 1 victories and earnings in excess of $5.6 million.
Like two other Triple Crown winners before him, American Pharoah failed to add the Travers to his robust resume.
Breaking from post 2, the Pioneerof the Nile colt struck the front early under Victor Espinoza and had a clear advantage rounding the clubhouse turn of the 1 ¼-mile event for 3-year-olds. An easy lead failed to materialize, however, as Grade 1 TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial victor Frosted hounded the Triple Crown winner through progressively faster splits of 24.28 seconds for the opening quarter-mile, 48.30 for the half, and 1:11.49 for three-quarters, with Keen Ice traveling wide and sitting a few lengths in arrears.
Frosted, ridden by Jose Lezcano, who was a late rider change after Joel Rosario took off his mounts following a spill in the ninth race, ramped up the pressure as the pair left the backstretch and drew even with the Triple Crown winner into the far turn, while Keen Ice continued to have the front-running pair in his sights.
American Pharoah came under serious urging and was briefly overtaken by Frosted at the top of the stretch, but remained resolute on the rail and inched ahead of his stubborn rival at the eighth pole. With the tussle clearly having enervated the favorite, Keen Ice was implored for run by jockey Javier Castellano and uncorked a strong rally down the center of the track.
A sixteenth from home, American Pharoah continued to cling desperately to the lead but defeat was inevitable. Keen Ice swept past in the final strides, stopping the clock in 2:01.57 – the fastest time for the race since Bernardini in 2006.
“I want to congratulate the connections of Keen Ice for a great win,” said American Pharoah’s trainer, Hall of Famer Bob 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. 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.”
Espinoza, who was aboard the Triple Crown winner for his historic run, felt a different American Pharoah underneath him than he’s accustomed to.
“He was not the same like when I’ve always been riding before,” he said. “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. Today, he was a little bit sweaty. 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.”
The late-running Keen Ice, who entered the Travers with only a maiden win to his credit, upended the result from the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on August 2 at Monmouth Park, in which he was beaten by a geared-down American Pharoah by 2 ¼ lengths. The win also gave Castellano a record five victories in the Mid-Summer Derby.
“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,” said Castellano. “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. When my horse kept getting closer and closer, I started getting more and more excited and thought, ‘This is it. It’s going to be my fifth Travers.’ And here I am.”
Winning trainer Dale Romans broke through with his first Travers score. The Kentucky-based horseman previously finished third with First Dude in 2010 and eighth with Shackleford in 2011.
“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.”
“American Pharoah’s legacy is not tarnished in any way,” Romans added. “Secretariat got beat, Seattle Slew got beat, Affirmed got beat. They [the owners and Bob Baffert] 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.”
Keen Ice returned $34 on a $2 win wager and more than doubled his career bankroll for owner Donegal Racing. His earnings now stand at $1.49 million.
Frosted, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Godolphin Racing, stayed on for third, 2 ½ lengths ahead of Upstart, who was 6 ¼ lengths clear of Texas Red. Frammento, Smart Transition, Tale of Verve, Mid Ocean and King of New York completed the order of finish.
With American Pharoah’s defeat, only Whirlaway in 1941 has completed the elusive Triple Crown-Travers sweep. Gallant Fox was upset by 100-1 longshot Jim Dandy in 1930 and Affirmed finished first in 1978 but was placed second behind rival Alydar for interference.