One of the first rules of Thoroughbred racing is "they all get beat," so while there was a collective groan when Keen Ice rolled past American Pharoah in front of 50,000 at Saratoga Race Course and on a nationally televised broadcast Aug. 29 in the Travers Stakes (gr. I), we shouldn't have been shocked.
American Pharoah joins some select company in losing at the Spa, and his defeat can only add to the mystique of the upstate New York track's nickname "Graveyard of Champions." Two other Triple Crown winners went down to defeat at the Spa in the '70s. In 1973 Secretariat lost to Onion in the Whitney Stakes (gr. II) and in 1978 Affirmed's number was taken down from first to second after jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. came in on Alydar heading to the far turn.
Another Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox dropped the Travers to Jim Dandy in 1930, and, of course, Upset topped Man o' War in the 1919 Sanford Memorial.
Understandably dismayed following the sting of defeat, breeder/owner Ahmed Zayat wondered aloud whether he's pressed his superstar too much and pondered retirement for his Triple Crown winner right after the race. Trainer Bob Baffert had a cooler head the following morning, suggesting they'd take their superstar back to Del Mar, chill out, and regroup. With nine weeks to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), there is no rush to make the next move.
Retirement in late August would be way too soon for racing's most captivating face. The crowds this horse attracted to Monmouth for the William Hill Haskell Invitational Stakes (gr. I) and at Saratoga—he drew 15,000 for his pre-race gallop the morning of Aug. 27—shows his star power. We're not ready to let go of the first horse to grab America's heartstrings in a generation so soon. He has presence.
Secretariat made four starts following his Waterloo in the Whitney; Affirmed soldiered on twice after the Travers, both times against 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, and raced at 4.
Slew lost his first race back after the Triple Crown, running back in three weeks after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and didn't run after that at 3. He did return at 4, following a near-fatal illness, to win five of seven starts.
Defeat takes little away from American Pharoah. His valuation was sealed in early summer, following the Belmont Stakes. What happens between June 6 to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) won't affect his legacy.
The Horse of the Year title is his—a Triple Crown winner has yet to be denied the top prize. It's interesting that 2015 has come up a banner group of candidates that in another year would have a big shot to land the gold Eclipse Award.
Some years come up a tad light: Does anybody really remember Kotashaan's run to the title in 1993, or All Along's being named Horse of the Year off just two starts in the U.S. in 1983?
This year's group is stout, and we've yet to hit Labor Day.
Beholder's departure from the distaff division to drub males in the $1 Million TVG Pacific Classic Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 23 is Horse-of-the-Year worthy if she can continue through the end of the year. And she's on the verge of accomplishing something more rare than racing's Triple Crown. In the history of the sport, only three females have been champion at 2, 3, and as an older filly/mare. Just three: Cicada, Regret, and Miss Woodford. That's pretty good company for Beholder who figures to land her personal hat trick by year's end.
Honor Code's electrifying runs in the NYRA.com Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) and Whitney (now gr. I) would be a healthy starter kit for a Horse of the Year run with a late-season victory or two added.
Private Zone's dominance of the sprint division has been pretty spectacular. In another time, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan might have been able to add a third title should he return to his form of old in the Sept. 19 Ricoh Woodbine Mile (Can-IT) and Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT).
The 1970s are regarded as racing's "golden age." Could this year's deep roster of top runners signal the beginning of another run?