USA: Pharoah bids to break ‘graveyard of champions’ curse

American Pharoah1 360

American Pharoah: hoping to add Travers to his list Grade 1 victories

  PICTURE: Getty Images  

Preview: USA, Saturday 10.46pm (live on ATR)

Saratoga: Travers Stakes (Grade 1) 1m2f, dirt, 3yo

TRIPLE CROWN hero American Pharoah (Bob Baffert/Victor Espinoza) must avoid the curse of the ‘graveyard of champions’ if he is to add a lustrous shine to his medal chest in the Travers Stakes.

With a purse bolstered to $1.6 million owing to the presence of the first Triple Crown winner for 37 years, the Travers is known as the ‘midsummer derby’, the jewel of the American racing summer and an unofficial ‘fourth leg’ of the Triple Crown. Whirlaway in 1941 remains the only Triple Crown winner to win the storied contest known as the ‘midsummer derby’, though Affirmed finished first in 1978 before being disqualified for interference and placed second to his arch rival Alydar.

While American Pharoah is sure to start long odds-on, he is making his debut at Saratoga. This track may be North America’s most beloved venue, but it is also a racetrack that can take some knowing; moreover, it is notorious as the scene for some of the biggest shocks in US racing history. The legendary Man o’War suffered the sole defeat of his magnificent career when he was beaten by the appropriately named Upset at Saratoga in 1919; Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox went down to 100-1 shot in Dandy in the 1930 Travers. Even the great Secretariat succumbed, outpointed by Onion in the 1973 Whitney.

American Pharoah is bidding to extend his winning sequence to nine at what will be, somewhat remarkably, the eighth different venue encountered by the Bob Baffert-trained superstar on only the tenth start of his career. He has not been beaten since his debut at Del Mar on August 9 last year, and seven of his eight wins since have come in Grade 1 company, including the last five – among them, of course, his historic Triple Crown spree.

On his most recent start in the Haskell, American Pharoah never looked like being beaten; in fact, he never looked like coming off the bridle. But now he meets a rather more talented group headed by last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red and Belmont runner-up Frosted. Admittedly, the son of Pioneerof The Nile has beaten both of them in the past but Baffert is not taking anything for granted.

The 12th winner of the Triple Crown has been drawn in gate two in a ten-runner field – but that number could drop if Upstart (Rick Violette/Irad Ortiz) is a non-runner, as seems likely according to his connections. The scratch could be highly significant, as Haskell third Upstart is scheduled to start from gate one on the inside, so in his absence American Pharoah could be set down on the rail.

There have been suggestions the rail is not the place to be at Saratoga this summer, although Embellish The Lace was on the inner throughout when making all last weekend for a surprise victory in the Grade 1 Alabama.

Although American Pharoah does not need to lead – he sat just off a wicked pace in the Haskell – he has always raced fairly prominently and faces few pace rivals here. The last horse to win the Travers from the front was Bernardini in 2006, and American Pharoah’s least impressive performance came when he had to battle hard to win the Kentucky Derby at a similar 1m2f distance.

Texas Red (Keith Desormeaux/Kent Desormeaux) and Godolphin’s Frosted (Kiaran McLaughlin/Joel Rosario) fought out the finish of the Jim Dandy Stakes, the designated Travers trial at Saratoga on August 1. Frosted was a half-length behind Texas Red that day but has a 4lb pull here.

Texas Red was beaten into third by American Pharoah in the FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita as a two-year-old; with American Pharoah missing, he stepped up on that performance to run right away with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He missed the Triple Crown with foot problems.

The Travers field also features others who have spent part of the year chasing American Pharoah, chiefly in the shape of Tale Of Verve (Dallas Stewart/Gary Stevens) and Keen Ice (Dale Romans/Javier Castellano), runners-up in the Preakness and Haskell respectively. Smart Transition (John Shirreffs/John Velazquez) won a Saratoga stakes earlier this summer for Zenyatta’s trainer.

What the connections say

Rick Violette, trainer of Upstart

“We still are sitting on the fence between running or waiting for [the Pennsylvania Derby at] Parx. I keep waiting for something to push me one way or the other. The door is still open; we’ll wait until Saturday morning to decide. But my horse is doing terrific, couldn’t be any better, and that’s the reason to keep the door open.”

Bob Baffert, trainer of American Pharoah

“It’s not an easy race. He [Texas Red] is a very nice horse and he won the Breeders’ Cup very impressively. I think they’ve done a great job getting him back. He is going to be tough and you’ve got Frosted in there. There are the new shooters coming up. So we’re prepared for a tough race.

“What surprised me is that he keeps bringing it like he does. I’ve had really good horses that when they put in a great performance it’s hard for them to keep bringing those great performances, and he does. We want to get another great performance out of him and we’re looking forward to watching him run.

“Everything has to go smooth for him. We don’t take anything for granted. We’re coming in there ready. We’re just treating it like it’s another big-time race, which it is. You still need some racing luck.”

Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Frosted

“It [gate six] is perfect for us. We wanted to be in the middle of the pack. Our horse is doing great and we just have to let Joel [Rosario] work out the trip. He’s going to run a big race and we can’t really worry about the pace.”

Dale Romans, trainer of Keen Ice

“He’s one of the few horses I’ve had that I think has improved every day of training of his life since I’ve had him. He’s getting better and better. We’re getting a little bit closer every time, maybe eventually we’ll catch him.”

John Shirreffs, trainer of Smart Transition

“All I can say is, ‘Jim Dandy’. Gallant Fox, right? He came here as a Triple Crown winner and there was a horse named Jim Dandy that beat him. You know what, I think it’s more than that. It’s going to be a great day for Saratoga.”


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