American Pharoah arrived shortly before the August 29th Travers Stakes, a much hoped-for appearance at the grand Saratoga course that boosted one of its signature races to a purse of $1.6 million.
Attendance for the day was capped, as it had been at the Belmont Stakes and at the Haskell. The desire to see the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in nearly four decades remains strong, and who wouldn’t want to say they once saw Pharoah in the flesh, in a race? It’s a story to tell the grandkids, or an occasion to share with the grandkids, if they are already here.
As usual, Pharoah didn’t look like he’d lost much ground, and it was reported that his weight has held fairly constant, a good indication of a horse’s well-being. He followed the usual routine of training in California and shipping to the track where he’d race a few days before running, and as the Zayats were interviewed in the paddock amidst an enormous amount of people waiting to see their star, their pride in him was evident. I commend Mr. Zayat for being so sporting, and taking his horse so many places people wanted to see him. It does loom, as Bob Baffert mentioned on the telecast, that he will be retiring soon, so it is wonderful they are providing the opportunity for as many people to watch him run as possible.
I was out of town visiting a friend when he ran, and watched the race over twenty-four hours after it occurred. I watched him sit back effortlessly, and he appeared to just be waiting for the cue from Espinoza to go, to run freely, as I had seen so often. When he got it, it didn’t take long for Frosted to match him stride for stride, but he still looked like he could put him away and he did begin to pull away from his opponent. Normally, he would have been gone in a blink, but he was having to really dig down and fight this time.
Perhaps that, and all the traveling back and forth was too much for even Pharoah this time. As we know, Keen Ice just managed to run him down and that left Pharoah to hold on for a gallant second place finish.
I read afterward that Mr. Zayat spoke of possibly retiring him now. I know it is a different world from when most of the previous Triple Crown winners raced. Of course, Secretariat was famously syndicated for millions, but Citation raced well past his 3-year-old year with the goal of earning a million dollars. Times have just changed in the racing industry, and a good or great colt is often ushered into the breeding shed quickly. Naturally, the risk of injury and the cost of insuring a great horse is a consideration. But I still think Zayat did the right thing sending Pharoah to the Travers.
It is moments like those, even when the horse doesn’t win, that can show what they are made of just as much as a victory can. There was no shame when Zenyatta lost to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic the way she did. She never quit trying, and Pharoah never quit trying in the Travers. In fact, I believe he dug so deep when eye-to-eye with Frosted because he is all heart and every bit a champion. A lesser horse would not have kept digging in.
I know there must have been disappointment at Saratoga from those who wanted to see him win, and I know there must have been disappointment among his connections, as indicated by Zayat saying he might just retire him now. I hope he doesn’t regret for one moment his sporting gesture to let Pharoah race at Saratoga. It still showed those present the heart of a champion, and what you’d hope to see in a racehorse. Even in defeat, there can be a story worth telling the grandchildren – about perseverance and determination.
And if he has come out of the Travers well, I do hope to see him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It might be a tall order for a three-year-old who travels constantly and has already won a Triple Crown. But we know Pharoah will try and I think he deserves the chance, one last opportunity to show what he can do before he takes up residence at Ashford. Not that he or the Zayats owe racing anything else, of course; I’ll always cherish that memory of what it felt like to see him and Espinoza parade before the grandstand to the cheers of the Derby crowd, and how it felt when he won the Crown. But to give him one more chance to meet his adoring public would be another grand sporting gesture that those in attendance wouldn’t forget – the day they saw American Pharoah in all his majesty, close enough to touch.
Wherever he goes from here, though, he has built a substantial legacy and given people a treasure trove of memories. And that lingers longer than any single afternoon where he was passed by a single rival.