Travers Stakes: High Anxiety

Call me a worry wart. I’ve been known to see the glass half empty; just my nature. So don’t take my concerns about American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes too seriously. It’s just me being me. All I can say, from past experience, is that this race scares the heck out of me, even though American Pharoah looks as if he could have everything his own way on the lead and could very well take the field on a merry romp.

Maybe it’s because I’ve seen enough Travers’ (46 to be exact) to realize the obstacles this race presents, even when there appears to be few or none.. And maybe because I have stated my concerns, win or lose, about the race having a cumulative effect on American Pharoah when it comes time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

A victory in the Travers would certainly enhance American Pharoah’s reputation, but in the long run, not his legacy. With him being retired at the end of the year, only the Breeders’ Cup Classic would do that. There is nothing wrong with American Pharoah being regarded in the history books as one of the greatest 3-year-olds of all time; he’s already established that, and a Travers victory would certainly cement it. But few horses retired at 3 are mentioned with the all-time great horses unless they defeat older horses, and I’m not talking about the Awesome Again Stakes against the same group that Beholder destroyed in the Pacific Classic.

Yes, Count Fleet is mentioned with the all-time greats, but that was a different time and Count Fleet still won 16 of 21 races and left an indelible impression by romping by 25 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. He also won the Kentucky Derby by three lengths, the Preakness by eight lengths, and won the Withers Stakes between the Preakness and Belmont by five lengths.

My concerns with American Pharoah, as I mentioned in an earlier column, are the cross-country trip to Monmouth; needing an extra day to return to the track; a very fast seven-furlong work in 1:23 1/5 six days before the Travers; getting on a another plane three days later, stopping off in Lexington, Ky.; and then running a mile a quarter three days after that against a talented group of horses who have been racing and/or training over the track all summer and are bred to relish a mile and a quarter. And let’s hope his ear plugs don’t come loose as he makes that long walk through the gauntlet of noise he will encounter on his way to the paddock.

Not only was American Pharoah’s toughest race at a mile and a quarter, but a mile and a quarter at Saratoga is more taxing on a horse than at Churchill Downs. Setting the pace going that far at Saratoga is far more demanding than setting an easy pace going 1 1/2 miles at Belmont, where the horses behind you normally don’t have the closing kick they have going 10 furlongs at Saratoga. There is a reason why the Travers is rarely run in under 2:02, and no winner has ever broken 2:00. In addition, American Pharoah drew post 2, which means he most likely will be sent to the lead or wind up chasing a top-class horse like Upstart (if he runs), who is breaking from the rail. But most likely he will be on the lead unless something unforeseen happens, strategy-wise.

To demonstrate what a tough race the Travers has been on speed horses, Bernardini, one of the great 3-year-olds of this century, is the only winner to lead at every call in the past 24 years, and that was against one of the worst Travers fields ever, with Bernardini going off at 2-5 against only five opponents. And the only one of note, Bluegrass Cat, came out of the race with a career-ending fracture. Two Travers winners who pressed the pace were Medaglia d’Oro, but that was in the slop and he was all out to win, and Hall of Famer Holy Bull, who chased a rabbit and then had to dig in for all he was worth to win by a neck in the most courageous performance of his illustrious career. In 1988, Forty Niner slowed the pace down to a 1:13 1/5 crawl for the three-quarters and still only won by a nose. In short, it hasn’t been an easy race to win on the front end.

I also mention all these concerns not so much to prepare readers for a possible defeat, but to truly appreciate what a victory would entail and how much he will have had to overcome. As great as American Pharoah has been, a Travers victory in my opinion would prove to be his greatest score, considering the obstacles, combined with the competition, headed by Texas Red and Frosted, who both should improve several lengths off the Jim Dandy, in which Frosted threw a shoe at the start. This is one he truly is going to have to earn and he will deserve all the accolades that come his way should he get it done.

But assuming he does overcome all this and emerges victorious, controlling the pace the entire way, that brings us back to the cumulative effect mentioned earlier. He would then have to fly back to California, probably take on older horses in the Awesome Again (or some race written for him), and then fly back east to Lexington, his fifth cross-country trip in less than three months, and be fresh enough and in peak form to take on the likes of possibly Beholder, Honor Code, Tonalist, Liam’s Map and a host of other top-class older horses, not to mention Texas Red, Frosted, Keen Ice and whatever other 3-year-olds show up, as well as possible invaders from Europe. Of course, another option, depending on how much the Travers takes out of him, is to simply wait for the Classic. Unusual, but not out of the question if that's what they decide is best.

The Zayats and Bob Baffert are to be commended for showcasing American Pharoah at Saratoga when he could have relaxed back home and save his traveling and his biggest and toughest race for the Classic, in which a victory would stamp his legacy as one of the true all-time greats. They’ve decided to go for the glory now, and knowing them there won’t be any regrets and second-guessing should he get beat on Saturday and/or feels the effects of the race come Breeders’ Cup time. They’ve always done what they felt was best for the horse, and the Zayats have decided it’s best to share him with the Saratoga crowd, despite the possible ramifications.

Who knows, maybe Pharoah will run away and hide in the Travers and go on to win the Classic, and all the concerns will have been for nothing. All you can do for now is wait for Pharoah to turn for home on Saturday and see if his two-length lead turns into a three-length lead or a one-length lead. I know I’ll be holding my breath.

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