S ARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Bob Baffert had just offered to give up his seat at the postrace news conference to the man who owned the winning horse in Saturday's Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The great trainer moved a few paces away from the dais, but was quickly surrounded. After answering a few questions, he looked at me, smiled and said: "The last 50 yards, I was thinking Parx."
That would have been the Sept. 19 Pennsylvania Derby, almost certainly Baffert's first choice for American Pharoah's next race after the Triple Crown winner overwhelmed the field in the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational. It was the safe, rational choice if the only goal was to get Pharoah to the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup Classic without losing.
Running in the Travers was part emotional and part financial, the ratio depending on what you want to believe.
"We were rolling the dice," Baffert admitted.
It took a combination of a twist of fate, in-race circumstance and an improving horse to bring down the Triple Crown winner on the same track where Man o' War and Secretariat were beaten. Keen Ice had tried AP in the Derby, Belmont Stakes and Haskell, losing by a combined 18 1/2 lengths. He finally caught up in the Travers, going by in the final yards to win by three-quarters of a length.
"It's like watching your kid get beat in a game or something so we're just very emotional," Baffert said.
Pharoah had been so brilliant for so long that the colt really had me wondering if he was the exception to the one horse racing rule I knew to be true: Something unexpected and probably bad will happen eventually.
Right after the race, I thought what everybody thought - this was not the Pharoah that had won eight consecutive races, that something was amiss. I don't think that now. I think the colt was heroic, showed incredible courage and ran like a horse who can win more major races - if he gets a chance.
The racing gods changed the equation when jockey Joel Rosario fell and was injured during the Forego Stakes, 80 minutes before the Travers. Frosted got a new rider, Jose Lezcano. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said right before the race he hoped Frosted would be fifth early. With Rosario, his normal rider and a man who rides passively, he probably would have been where the trainer expected. Instead, with Lezcano riding for the first time, Frosted was allowed to run himself into the race just behind Pharoah, who figured to get a comfortable lead with no pressure.
After a half mile in a leisurely 48.30 seconds, Frosted was lapped on Pharoah. The next half mile, with the pair running as a team, was the killer. It went in 46.78 seconds. By the quarter pole, Pharoah really looked done. Suddenly, AP rebroke and got away from Frosted, looking like he might find a way - until Keen Ice came for him late.
It reminded me of the Smarty Jones' Belmont when the best horse finished second because he had to run too fast too soon under pressure. I also thought of the best Travers I ever saw when, in 1994, the great Holy Bull endured the same type of pressure as Pharoah, but somehow held off the late run of Concern. The difference was that Holy Bull got off the Triple Crown trail after a terrible effort in the Derby. Pharoah has had no rest and no home games in 2015. The miracle wasn't that he finally got beat; it was that he got so far without getting beat.
In addition to the toughest trip in horse racing, pace pressure from the outside, I can make a pretty strong case that the rail was a disadvantage throughout the card. Still, Pharoah almost won despite a nearly 27-second final quarter while shortening stride late.
"He was running on pure guts there," Baffert said. "He did that in the Derby and we got away with it."
AP's jockey Victor Espinoza said Lezcano and Frosted hit him six of seven times. The replay, regular and head-on, does not bear that out. Lezcano's ride was fine.
Strongly suggesting he has not gone off form, AP got a speed figure similar to what he has been receiving all year. The mile and quarter went in 2:01.57 on a surface that was yielding fast times, but was not crazy fast.
Pharoah's owner Ahmed Zayat is more emotional than reasoned. Right after the race, he said: "My gut feeling right now . . . is to retire [the horse]."
Whatever happens next, racing fans have fallen hard for American Pharoah and I do believe they were a factor in deciding to run in the Travers, definitely not a practical decision. Saratoga oozes tradition from its red-and-white-striped awnings to the Travers Canoe in the infield lake that gets painted with the winner's colors every year.
Union Avenue in front of the track was jammed Friday morning several hours before Pharoah's scheduled 8:45 gallop. The stands were filled from the end of the clubhouse to the sixteenth pole. They were five deep at the rail from the top of the stretch beyond the finish line. That evening, they were back on Union Avenue outside the main gate lined up for the dawn run to the picnic tables in the "backyard" that is essentially a playground with betting windows and televisions.
A capped crowd of 50,000 found its way inside America's oldest sports venue. Nearly $50 million was bet on the card at the track and around the country. The Pharoah Show has been mesmerizing.
There are now competing forces in play with American Pharoah's racing future. Zayat clearly loves to race his horse, which was a reason for the trip to the Travers. Zayat also has incentive to run with breeding "kickers" in his stud deal that reward him if the horse wins certain races. The Travers apparently was one of those races. Coolmore, the farm that owns AP's breeding rights, clearly would like to see the horse retired to protect what has turned out to be a great investment.
"They didn't tarnish his legend at all," insisted Keen Ice's trainer Dale Romans.
He's probably right, but I think it may depend on what happens next. Secretariat lost two of his first four races after the Triple Crown before dominating wins in his last two. Seattle Slew was badly beaten in his first race after the Triple Crown, but went on to have a brilliant 4-year-old campaign. After being disqualified in the Travers, Affirmed lost four straight He finished his career with seven straight wins. All three are legends.
Pharoah had no physical issues at the barn yesterday morning. Baffert let people inside the barricades to pet the horse. The colt was to be flown back to his Del Mar, Calif. base today. If American Pharoah never races again, the ending will be unfortunate. If he is pointed for the Classic and wins it, he will receive the proper ending the heroes of the 1970s got, a sendoff a Triple Crown winner deserves.