American Pharoah: sectionals tell the story of defeat at Saratoga
PICTURE: Jessie Holmes/EquiSport Photos
WORLD CLASS: an analysis of the international scene according to Racing Post Ratings
THERE was premature talk of retirement after Triple Crown hero American Pharoah suffered a shock loss in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday.
Emotions were clearly running high after what was widely expected to be his seventh win of the campaign turned into a defeat, but ending his career would be a regrettable reaction to an excusable defeat.
Saratoga has a reputation as the graveyard of champions with legends like Secretariat and Man o’ War getting turned over at the New York state track, but the defeat of the 2015 Triple Crown winner was down to something far more straight-forward than an ancient hoodoo – he was just tired.
The champ was running in his seventh race in less than six months. He had to cut out his own pace and was hassled into going just a tick too fast for a large portion of the race. After a valiant battle the pace and busy campaign simply caught up with him and he was gradually worn down by Keen Ice.
The sectionals tell the tale of the race. The two-furlong splits for the race leader (which until the dying strides was American Pharoah) were thus: 24.28, 24.02, 23.18, 23.60, 26.49.
Those 23 second splits from 6f out to 2f out were where American Pharoah lost the race. Under pressure from Frosted, jockey Victor Espinoza tried to maintain his lead on American Pharoah but both horses were going too fast from a long way out.
The leaders held a five-length margin over the winner Keen Ice turning into the straight but after Frosted’s battle to unsettle the favourite and American Pharoah’s battle to retain his lead the pair slowed significantly in the final furlong and allowed the 16-1 shot to breeze past for a surprise victory.
American Pharoah ran his final 2f split three seconds slower than his previous two splits, which highlights the extent of his fatigue. Compare this to his Belmont Stakes win over 1m4f, where he might have been expected to tire but didn’t at all, reeling off closing splits of: 24.58, 24.34 and 24.32.
If he had run just half a stride slower and posted splits over 24 seconds he might have been able to keep going and we might have seen another big win for America’s champion, but not even a champion can keep galloping once he has shot his bolt.
Once you’re out of steam, you’re out of steam and the favourite finally relented to finish second, beaten three-quarters of a length by Keen Ice, who was one of those left toiling in his wake in the Haskell Invitational earlier this month.
It would be harsh to pin all the blame for American Pharoah’s defeat on Espinoza. Yes, he allowed his mount to get into a duel a long way from home, but all past evidence suggested American Pharoah would have seen off Frosted well before the straight and coasted to an easy success. The problem was Frosted would not go away this time and kept piling on the pressure which eventually cost them both the race.
Keen Ice also slowed down significantly in the closing stages. He just slowed down slower than American Pharoah (122) and Frosted (117). The progressive winner posted a career best RPR of 123 with the second and third running below their best.
After the race stunned connections of the runner-up were searching for problems and answers and even spoke of retirement, but there probably was no underlying problem with the horse as the splits speak for themselves.
If American Pharoah was able to keep up that exacting gallop right to the line he would have won by around 15 lengths (the rough equivalent of three seconds), which would have required an RPR in excess of 150. He may be brilliant but he’s not that good – Frankel broke the 0-140 scale with a mark of 143 – and he simply could not keep it up.
What American Pharoah needs now is a break. He’s got two months before his long-term target of the Breeders Cup Classic and he’s unlikely to squeeze in more than one run before that. A soft win at Grade 2 level or below would set him up perfectly for his final dance with destiny in the big all-age championship at Keeneland.
At present there’s no guarantee he will race again but retirement now would provide a bizarre anti-climax to an outstanding career.
The other big performances at Saratoga on Saturday included a cosy win for Flintshire (118) in the Sword Dancer Invitational on turf.
Andre Fabre’s colt has earned a string of second places in top races like the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and Breeders’ Cup Turf and he knows how to win when dropped in grade slightly.
The Sword Dancer is not the strongest Grade 1 on turf and the French five-year-old didn’t need to produce his best form to score by two and a half lengths from Red Rifle (114).
TOP OF THE CLASS: Keen Ice 123 Dale Romans (US) (Travers Stakes, Saratoga, 1m2f, 29 August)
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