There have been some exciting racing videos on YouTube this year, but none more exciting and revealing, and ultimately profound than the GoPro video of American Pharoah’s gallop the day before the Travers Stakes that also was posted on the NYRA website.
A horse’s gallop is the video of the year, you ask? The answer in one person’s opinion is unequivocally yes, because of its reality factor – allowing us the feeling of what it’s like to be on the back of a Triple Crown winner – and its revealing content – providing the most logical reason for American Pharoah’s defeat the following day.
The shocking upset in the Travers really shouldn’t have been all that shocking. Although American Pharoah’s stunning victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic made everyone forget the Travers, the truth is, the Midsummer Derby should not be forgotten, as it demonstrated in is own way just how special this colt really was…even in defeat. Just like Seattle Slew’s defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Zenyatta’s defeat in her second Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Travers should have enhanced American Pharoah’s reputation, not detracted from it.
To begin with, American Pharoah had recently won the Haskell Invitational, then flew back to California, and then to Saratoga, all in less than a month, completing his 11th cross-country flight in a five-month period. And he was racing at the track they call the “Graveyard of Favorites” or “Graveyard of Champions,” whichever you prefer. It did not come by that title by accident.
In addition, American Pharoah needed an extra day off before returning to the track after the Haskell, which apparently took a toll on the colt. He then turned in 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 had been racing and/or training over the track all summer and were bred to relish a mile and a quarter.
The belief here is that American Pharoah still would have won the Travers had it not been for his gallop the day before that attracted an amazing 15,000 to 20,000 vocal fans who began cheering loudly as soon as the colt approached the grandstand from the clubhouse turn. When he turned around and began his gallop, an even louder roar went up from the crowd. And then as he passed the grandstand and headed into the clubhouse turn, all quickly went quiet.
Now, we were all aboard for the ride, peering between American Pharoah’s cocked ears and swirling mane. There is an old Arab proverb that goes, “The air of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.” We were now experiencing that as American Pharoah began picking up speed.
You could almost feel the combination of power, balance, and grace beneath you and the speed at which American Pharoah was traveling -- much faster than one might expect from a normal gallop the day before a mile and a quarter race.
American Pharoah, drenched by the morning sun, whizzed by the onlookers scattered along the backstretch rail and continued at a strong clip around the far turn, as his and exercise rider George Alvarez’s shadows shifted from the left to the right side of the horse. There they were in clear view, as if running alongside, providing a beautiful silhouette of horse and rider.
As they turned into the stretch, the crowd came back into view off in the distance and the cheering could be faintly heard, growing louder with each stride. It was hard to imagine that American Pharoah, just two days off the plane, would be racing a mile and a quarter the following day, as he was rolling along at such a fast clip. The faster he went the more his mane could be seen blowing wildly in the breeze.
Once again, American Pharoah galloped past the wall of noise to his right and into the quiet of the turn. But he showed no signs of slowing down. As he continued down the backstretch again, you could hear Alvarez, now huffing and puffing pretty good himself, urging him to “Whoa.”
After finally getting the colt to break off his gallop well up the backstretch, he quickly turned him around and headed toward assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes waiting on the pony. Alvarez was still breathing heavily as he replied in short responses to comments from onlookers.
The video followed American Pharoah back to his barn, and then it was over. One couldn’t help but feel they had just been taken on the ride of a lifetime. You could feel that exhilaration and even the shortness of breath that Alvarez was feeling.
To show just how fast American Pharoah was going, it is not common procedure to two-minute lick a horse nearly a mile and half the day before a mile and a quarter race, and having only arrived two days earlier. Had American Pharoah been two-minute licking (one mile in two minutes), he would have traveled the mile and a quarter in 2:30, NYRA clockers, however, timed him in 2:24. That means had there been another horse on the track two-minute licking with him, American Pharoah would have finished 30 lengths ahead of him.
This gallop was not by design. In all likelihood it was the size of the crowd and the loud cheering – something a horse is not accustomed to in the morning -- that got Pharoah’s blood up enough to make him roll around there too fast.
The headline in the New York Times read, “American Pharoah Awes Saratoga Springs on Eve of Travers.” That should have been the head after the Travers, not after a gallop. That is not when you want to awe the crowd.
Then to compound matters, American Pharoah was eyeballed early in the Travers by the classy Wood Memorial winner Frosted, who was being ridden by a last-minute substitute jockey who did not ride to orders, putting his colt and American Pharoah on a suicide mission over a very testing track. American Pharoah ran his heart out, finally disposing of Frosted and opening a clear lead in the stretch, only to be caught in the final strides by Haskell runner-up Keen Ice.
Following a grueling Triple Crown trail and hard race in the Kentucky Derby and running 1 1/8 miles in a swift 1:47 4/5 in the Haskell, American Pharoah was knocked out pretty good from the Travers experience, but of course recovered to dominate the best older horses in training in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Travers will forever be a footnote in the legacy of American Pharoah -- the only race he lost as a 3-year-old. But it was so much more. It was another important step leading up to the gates of the pantheon, as it demonstrated the colt’s courage and his ability to engage in battle when looked in the eye.
But most of all, it left racing fans with a precious gift to be enjoyed for all time – what it’s like to be on the back of an extraordinary horse and Triple Crown winner and feel the air of heaven blowing between his ears.