Rival trainers hope the rigors of travel overtake American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course, because their horses have been unable to.
American Pharoah has crisscrossed the country, logging enough miles to wither the sturdiest road warrior. He twice jetted round-trip from his West Coast base to Arkansas for Kentucky Derby prep races at Oaklawn Park. He hit the road again for the Kentucky Derby and the start of the three-races-in-five-weeks grind that he withstood to emerge as the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first in 37 years.
When he completed another journey from Del Mar to Barn 25, one that required 12 hours from stall to stall Wednesday, it marked his second coast-to-coast trek in four weeks. Although his regular rider Victor Espinoza eased him under the wire by 2 1/4 lengths in the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 2 at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J., there is some speculation that American Pharoah's latest odyssey might be one too many because it will be his seventh start of a demanding campaign.
Dale Romans, who trains Haskell runner-up and Travers starter Keen Ice, said it is "very possible" that American Pharoah will finally show wear and tear in the late stages of the mile-and-one-quarter Travers, which drew a 10-horse field.
"That's why you have so many horses lined up against him," Romans said. "If it happens, we all want to be there to pick up the pieces and the added purse he brought along."
The New York Racing Assn. increased the purse from $1.25 million to $1.6 million to encourage Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah, to have his stellar colt compete at a picturesque track that bears a grim reputation: "Graveyard of Champions."
Trainer Keith Desormeaux won the traditional Travers prep when Texas Red took the Jim Dandy on Aug. 1. He would not be shocked if American Pharoah, winner of eight consecutive races since he faltered in his debut last August, should finally be running on empty. "Trying to run back in another race across the country in a four-week period is tough," he said.
American Pharoah will break from post No. 2 as an overwhelming 1-5 morning-line favorite in a bid to join Whirlaway (1941) as the only Triple Crown champions to win the Travers in its 146-year history. In one of the most famous upsets in racing history, Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox was toppled by 100-1 Jim Dandy in 1930. In another, mighty Secretariat chased Onion in vain in a shocking one-length defeat in the Whitney here in 1973.
Trainer Bob Baffert has been wary of coming to Saratoga since the day after the Belmont Stakes. In discussing American Pharoah's path to the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., Baffert said in June, "I don't want to find any Onions."
Baffert said during a national conference call Tuesday that he viewed the timing as "preferable" if the son of Pioneerof The Nile waited for the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 19 after competing in the Haskell.
Zayat, in his desire to showcase racing's needed superstar, emphasized soon after the Haskell that he wanted to aim at the Travers if American Pharoah continued to do well. He delighted generations of fans that descend on this bucolic town to see world-class racing every August by committing to the Travers on Sunday after American Pharoah blazed seven furlongs in 1:23 1/5 seconds.
Three days later, American Pharoah was on the road again.
Suffice it to say he does not travel in coach class. The Boeing 727 that carried him, dubbed "Air Horse One," was met by a police escort at Albany International Airport to ease a 30-minute drive north. He was treated to a sponge bath after Jimmy Barnes, Baffert's top assistant, acquainted him with his surroundings. His new barn was decorated by a vase containing a dozen roses, a gift from an admirer. The fanfare continued Friday when he attracted an estimated 18,000 fans for a morning gallop.
Desormeaux, also based in California, has been with Texas Red in New York since the start of July in an attempt to gain an advantage. "We've had a race over the track. We've basically been based here," he said. "We're not shipping in from out of town, trying to take the money and run."
Baffert believes American Pharoah has an affinity for East Coast tracks, which tend to be deeper and not as hard on the surface as drier West Coast strips. He thinks American Pharoah's ability to maintain his brilliance despite heavy travel only adds to the horse's luster.
"He's the only horse I've ever had that has given me just six great performances right in a row and he's shipping back and forth," he said. "I mean the mileage, it's unheard of for a racehorse."