Keen Ice might have ruined the greatest Halloween in the history of horse racing.
With a late rally, he passed American Pharoah in the final yards of the Travers Stakes, ending the Triple Crown winner’s perfect season and putting his Breeders’ Cup Classic start into question.
“His tank wasn’t as full as we hoped it would be,” American Pharoah’s trainer Bob Baffert said on the NBC broadcast. “I could tell at about the half-mile pole that we were in trouble. The only reason we even finished second is because he’s such a great horse.”
Jockey Victor Espinoza said that American Pharoah didn’t seem to have any physical problems – he just seemed tired after racing earlier this month in the Haskell. That wouldn’t be a problem with the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which will be run on Halloween evening.
Still, Baffert seemed shaken when asked what he and Zayat Stables will do next with racing’s biggest star.
“I don’t know, I wanted to see how taxing this race was on him,” he said. “We’ll have to sit down and figure it out. I’m not used to be in this position with him, so it is hard to process right now.”
On paper, the race set up perfectly for American Pharoah. With no early speed in the 10-horse race, it seemed like he would be able to do what he has done so many times – jump out to an early lead, cruise through the turn at an easy pace and then accelerate away down the stretch.
Right off the bat, though, it became obvious that things weren’t going according to play. Frosted, a horse that normally runs at the back of the pack before putting on a late charge, immediately battled American Pharoah for the lead.
Even with a fairly slow pace – they ran the first half-mile in a relatively slow 48.3 seconds – the Triple Crown champ wasn’t able to put Frosted away. They battled through the turn, and the gray horse even put his nose in front at the top of the stretch before American Pharoah pulled away.
By that point, though, he had nothing left for Keen Ice – a horse he had beaten easily in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Travers.
Given Espinoza’s comments, it is hard to imagine that Baffert would bring American Pharoah back again in three weeks for the Pennsylvania Derby, nor that he would want his star to face older horses in the Sept. 26 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita or the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 3 at Belmont.
That means the most likely outcome, assuming the horse doesn’t develop any health issues, is that he will spend the next two months in training before traveling to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland.
If he does, he will make history as soon as he enters the starting gate, becoming the first horse to have a chance at winning the Grand Slam – the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Breeders’ Cup didn’t start until 1984, six years after Affirmed’s Triple Crown – so just having American Pharoah at the track should guarantee viewing and betting records at the track and around the world.
It would be a moment that, three months ago, no one would have thought possible. As American Pharoah prepared for the Belmont, only two outcomes seemed possible. Either another Triple Crown shot would go down in flames, leaving people to wonder if today’s brittle thoroughbreds could ever manage the feat, and he would win the race, end the drought and immediately be retired to stud.
Instead, after another dominant performance made him the 12th Triple Crown winner, Zayat Stables have decided that the sport and its fans deserved to keep seeing him run. After a break of almost two months, he came back at Monmouth Park for an easy win in the Haskell Stakes – a grade I race with a purse of $1.75 million.
Trainer Bob Baffert could have kept American Pharoah back home to California for last weekend’s Pacific Classic, which would have pitted the 3-year-old against older horses for the first time. He passed, and in the process, helped racing a little more. With the Triple Crown winner not at Santa Anita, a talented field was blown apart by Beholder, the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner and the first filly or mare to ever win the race.
That means, along with the Triple Crown winner, the Breeders’s Cup Classic will now include a great female star trying to emulate Zenyatta’s 2009 victory.
By passing on the Pacific Classic, Baffert was able to send American Pharoah after a lesser-known accomplishment – the 3-year-old Superfecta. Only three previous Triple Crown winners had gone to Saratoga in an attempt to win late summer’s biggest race for 3-year-olds – Gallant Fox in 1930, Whirlaway in 1941 and Affirmed in 1978.
Gallant Fox lost on a muddy track to Jim Dandy, while Affirmed lost via disqualification to, of course, Alydar. It was the 10th and final meeting between the sport’s greatest rivals – a series that Affirmed won 7-3.
Whirlaway, though, was able to achieve the fourth win, routing a field of just two other horses. Instead of his solo reign with the Superfecta title ending at 74 years, Keen Ice made sure that he’ll make it to 75 and beyond.
For American Pharoah, the future is cloudy. Will the Travers go down in history as just a fluke loss at Saratoga – the same track that saw Man Of War’s only loss and Secretariat defeat to little-known Onion – or will it eventually be seen as the end of his great run?
Hopefully for the sport of racing, it won’t go down as the end of his career. The sport needs a healthy American Pharoah in the starting gate at Keeneland, just as the ghosts and goblins start roaming America’s streets.