Travers Decision Brings Many Questions

Although we are well aware of Saratoga’s reputation, this in no way is meant to suggest or influence what American Pharoah’s connections should do regarding running in the Travers Stakes. Bob Baffert and Ahmed Zayat have handled the colt perfectly so far, from his injury suffered before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and subsequent layoff over the winter right through his Triple Crown sweep and easy score in the Haskell Invitational Stakes.

This merely is about the questions that one must ask should they decide to run. There are thousands of racing fans, especially those who have purchased Travers tickets and are traveling far distances to get to the Spa on Aug. 29 who will not want to hear these questions, but they come with the territory. After all, what is in the best interest of American Pharoah should be the top priority, and we all know by now that is, and has always been, first and foremost in the minds of his connections.

As an old school racing fan, I am always in favor of seeing great horses compete and not put on the shelf for months, and what better place to compete than Saratoga. But I am the first to admit that times have changed, as have owners, who are offered tens of millions of dollars for the breeding rights to their horse, which is accompanied by the constant pressure to retire them earlier than later. Owners in general no longer are like the sportsmen of the past who bred, raised, and raced their horses and retired them to stand at their own farm or another well-known establishment, while syndicating them with only 40 shares available.

Nowadays it is about enhancing a horse’s reputation, and in American Pharoah’s case, his legacy. A defeat means a great deal more now than it did in the past, but when you have a great horse you shouldn’t be afraid of defeat. That should be the mindset of owners, because great horses have always been remembered for their victories and Herculean feats, and their defeats have, for the most part faded, with the pages of the history books. But tell that to the farm owners and potential shareholders, whose most nightmarish word is “devalue.” That only puts more pressure on the horse’s owner.

An announcement following Sunday’s work that Pharoah will make his next start in the Travers Stakes would be made with careful consideration and close scrutiny over the colt’s every move. So, if Baffert gives the green light to return east for the Midsummer Derby, there is no reason to question the decision.

However, there are several factors involved that one should be aware of to determine just how much, if anything, Pharoah will have to overcome if the Travers is to be a steppingstone to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As of now, we don’t know just where the Breeders’ Cup fits in with the horse’s schedule prior to his retirement to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud in Kentucky. It makes sense that Coolmore would naturally love to see him retired immediately and would pull out all stops to do so. Any farm that holds the breeding rights to a hot commodity would, and American Pharoah has long surpassed “hot” and probably even “torrid” and “scorching.”

If there is one thing we have learned about American Pharoah, it is that he is no ordinary horse and in fact is unlike anything we’ve seen in a very long time. His ability to bounce back from a race and actually keep getting better and stronger is truly remarkable. He deals with everything asked of him, whether on the racetrack in the mornings and afternoon, putting up with the constant media crush, or interacting with the hundreds of visitors who have flocked to his barn for a photo op.

As for the Travers, there are questions one must ask, not only in regard to winning or losing, but more importantly what effect the race might have on the colt come Breeders’ Cup time, if that indeed is the ultimate goal. If anyone can overcome Saratoga’s reputation as the “Graveyard of Favorites,” it is American Pharoah. The questions arise more about the long-term effects the race might have, although the race itself comes with obvious potential pitfalls. Just open the history books. But it is more than that.

The opinion here is that the only race that can truly enhance Pharoah's legacy is the Breeders’ Cup Classic, defeating the best older horses in the country, and the last thing you want to do is compromise that. Sometimes it's best to take your main goal and work backwards to figure out the best way to get there in peak condition. American Pharoah has already won a grade I following the Triple Crown, which already enhances his legacy, and neither the Travers nor the Awesome Again will add much of anything to it. All they would do is maintain it and showcase him in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd. The Awesome Again at least would give him a victory over older horses in case he doesn’t make the Breeders’ Cup.

Remember, the three Triple Crown winners of the ‘70s – Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed – had a combined record of 18-for-19 through the Belmont, but were a combined five-for-11 that year following the Belmont.

First off, there were mistakes made by some of their owners, and, secondly, it is just plain difficult to win every race following the Triple Crown grind against fresh, talented horses, several of whom bypassed the Triple Crown. That is especially true when you have to travel cross country in the heat and humidity of summer to face them on their home track, as Pharoah would have to do against the razor-sharp Texas Red and Frosted, who have already turned in huge efforts at Saratoga this year; and the improving stayer Keen Ice. And there are a number of top-quality older horses this year that he will have to face at Keeneland, unlike last year when 3-year-olds dominated the Classic.

So, would the Travers compromise American Pharoah’s chances in the Classic, based on a historic perspective? Is there a danger of peaking too soon racing three times before the Classic?

By running in the Travers it means that he would have to make five cross-country trips in less than 3 months. Baffert said he had to walk him for four days after getting back home from Monmouth Park instead of the normal three days. And remember, he was on a van and then a plane by 7 a.m. the morning after the race. But as he usually does, he shrugged it all off and eventually bounced back to his normal self; his coat beaming. And he’s been training brilliantly.

However, the question still arises, would another cross-country trip and being subjected to the heat and possible humidity at Saratoga and then shipping back to California and running in the Awesome Again against older horses, and then making a fifth cross-country trip in a relatively short period of time compromise his chances in the Classic? These are questions without answers, but need to be asked nonetheless.

If the Travers, which will be a much tougher spot than the Haskell, takes something out of him (heat, travel, stress), who knows how it would affect him when it comes time to travel back across the country and peak in the Classic against a very talented and deep crop of older horses and improving 3-year-olds?

At Saratoga, American Pharoah would have to walk through a gauntlet of cheering fans, with a sea of cell phones aimed at him from all directions, and we’ve seen how the colt can get a bit worked up when confronted with a noisy crowd at such close range, as he was before the Derby.

American Pharoah’s toughest race came at 1 1/4 miles, and the Travers normally is a hard-fought race that has produced a number of close finishes. Yes, he won easily at 1 1/2 miles, but being out on a lone lead going 1 1/2 miles at Belmont is actually a lot easier on a horse than a more grueling mile and a quarter.

From a historical standpoint, no Travers winner has ever won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the last Haskell-Travers winner to even make it to the Classic was Coronado's Quest in 1998 and he shipped directly to Saratoga from Monmouth. In his next two starts he was fifth in both the Woodward and Classic.

The last Haskell-Travers winner was Point Given in 2001, who suffered a career-ending injury shortly after, having returned to California following the Haskell. Of course, there is no evidence that injury had anything to do with running in the Haskell and Travers.

Baffert had good success at Saratoga years ago, but not much recently, sending only a handful of horses there, while expressing his concerns about the often testing surface, which some horses can handle and others cannot. No horse in a century and a half has ever cracked the 2:00 mark for 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga and only two Travers winners in the past 21 years have bettered 2:02. For many years, three horses – Jaipur, Buckpasser, and Damascus – shared the track record of 2:01 3/5. It is a race in which you have to be dead-fit, and that is what Baffert will determine on Sunday. When Point Given won the Travers he was coming off a close finish in the Haskell, while American Pharoah won being eased shortly after turning for home.

Top-class Travers winners such as Medaglia d'Oro, Bernardini, Forty Niner, Street Sense, Summer Bird, Birdstone, Lemon Drop Kid, Will Take Charge, Stay Thirsty, and Flower Alley all were beaten in the Classic.

Winning a race at 1 1/4 miles or longer (the Jockey Club Gold Cup was 1 1/2 miles from 1984 to 1989) in either of your final two preps for the Breeders’ Cup Classic has not proven that successful in winning the Classic. Since the inauguration of the Classic, of the 116 combined runnings of the 1 1/4-mile Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Pacific Classic, Super Derby and Meadowlands Cup, only seven winners of those races have gone on to win the Classic, and six of the seven -- Alysheba, Curlin, Skip Away, Tiznow, Sunday Silence, and Cigar -- are in the Hall of Fame. Curlin is the only 3-year-old to win one of those races and the Classic in the past 14 years and he did it in the slop against an inferior crop of older horses and coming off basically a one-turn or 1 1/2 turn race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

This in no way is suggesting that American Pharoah will be victimized by the “Graveyard of Favorites,” and I’m not saying he cannot win the Haskell, Travers, Awesome Again, and Breeders’ Cup Classic – he is too great a horse to doubt his ability to do extraordinary things. But these still are questions that must be asked if he keeps hopping back and forth from coast to coast and facing top quality horses in 85 to 90-degree weather before heading to Keeneland in the fall. The long-range forecast for Travers day is temperatures in the mid-80s.

If they do decide to go to the Travers and have three more races before he’s retired, the colt’s greatness surely will be tested, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as they are able to shrug off a defeat should one occur and move on. Just look at the budding European superstar Golden Horn, who was previously undefeated, getting beat by a 50-1 3-year-old filly in last weekend’s Juddmonte International at 2-5, most likely due to being too fresh and running over wet, testing ground.

We are all aware by now that there are many ways to lose a race, no matter who you are. Well, perhaps unless you’re American Pharoah. But, oh, those nagging questions. Can’t help it, it’s the nature of the beast, having been going to Saratoga for nearly 50 years. For me, it is racing’s version of heaven, but it’s a crazy place, where the inexplicable often happens.

This is not an easy decision to make, and all you can do is wish American Pharoah’s connections the very best of luck whatever they decide.

Oh, yes, if for some reason American Pharoah is retired before the Breeders’ Cup, then never mind.

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