The brilliant career of American Pharoah, who briefly returned his sport to national attention as the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years, may have reached an inglorious end.
Ahmed Zayat, owner of the 3-year-old colt, raised that prospect several times after American Pharoah withstood race-long pressure from Frosted only to have Keen Ice blow past him by three-quarters of a length in the 146th Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
"If this horse is one percent not the American Pharoah that we cherish, show's over," an emotional Zayat said during the post-race news conference.
At another point, Zayat said, "I've made all my decisions in my life being an entrepreneur, being a gut man. So my gut's saying if the horse showed me that he tailed off, he's not the Pharoah I know, then there's no question in my mind that the right thing is to retire him. He doesn't owe me or anybody anything. I have to worry about him. That's the way it's going to be."
Zayat has had a breeding agreement with Coolmore in place for months now. With the $270,000 second-place share of a purse increased from $1.25 million to $1.6 million to help attract American Pharoah, the horse has earned $5,900,300.
By any measure, the 12th Triple Crown champion, the winner of eight consecutive starts since a losing debut, was a shadow of himself. Regular rider Victor Espinoza was so sure of American Pharoah slightly less than four weeks ago that he eased him well before the wire and still finished 2 ¼ comfortable lengths ahead of Keen Ice in the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 2 at New Jersey's Monmouth Park.
But this was the second time American Pharoah flew East from his West Coast base at Del Mar in less than a month. And he has been journeying across the country since a demanding seven-race campaign began with consecutive races in Arkansas in March and April. That prepared him for the Kentucky Derby, the first of three Triple Crown races in three states in five weeks.
"We knew we were doing the impossible shipping him back and forth, back and forth," Baffert said. "It's sad to see him get beat. I feel bad for him."
American Pharoah was bidding to join Whirlaway (1941) as the only horses to win the Travers after completing the historic sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Espinoza suspected something was amiss shortly before they entered the starting gate. American Pharoah, who does not typically sweat, had developed beads of perspiration on his bay coat on a comfortable afternoon.
The fractions the front-running American Pharoah established were well within his scope. He traveled the opening quarter in 24.28 seconds, the half in 48.30 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.48. Frosted briefly surged ahead at the top of the stretch only to have American Pharoah flash his greatness by repelling that bid. He had nothing left, though, when Keen Ice, one for 10 lifetime before this race, stormed home.
Baffert had often expressed concern about competing in the Travers. He said during a national conference call Tuesday that his preference would have been to have the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing on Sept. 19 follow the Haskell, because that allowed more time between starts and cross-country flights. Their ultimate goal had been the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland in Kentucky.
Baffert was already haunted by the "What if?" question when he saw American Pharoah running on empty Saturday. What if they waited for the Pennsylvania Derby?
"The last 50 yards," he said, "I was thinking Parx."
The startling outcome — Keen Ice returned $34 for a $2 win wager — added to Saratoga's infamy as the "Graveyard of Champions."
Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner before American Pharoah, appeared to turn back Alydar once more in the 1978 Travers only to be disqualified. Gallant Fox, the Triple Crown winner in 1930, was foiled in the Travers by Jim Dandy — at 100-1. Even the mighty Secretariat became suddenly vulnerable here, bowing to Onion in the Whitney in 1973.
Baffert said Zayat's intentions were noble in wanting the Travers to be part of the schedule for his immensely popular champion. Racing's much-needed superstar drew a crowd capped at 50,000 for the mile-and-a-quarter race known as the "Mid-Summer Derby" after attracting 18,000 fans for a morning on Friday.
"He did it for racing. He did it for Saratoga," Baffert said of Zayat.