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Exaggerator to test Saratoga’s reputation as the Graveyard of Champions

Saratoga Race Course
Horses break from the starting gate at Saratoga Race Course on July 22.
(Hans Pennink / Associated Press)

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert dismisses Saratoga Race Course’s reputation as the Graveyard of Champions, even after his American Pharoah joined the list of greats to lose here when he bowed in the Travers Stakes last August.

“I think a lot of it is just myth,” Baffert said.

Undaunted by last year’s misadventure, Baffert on Saturday will test leading 3-year-old Exaggerator in the $1.25-million Travers with American Freedom and Arrogate. He also will start Drefong and Jazzy Times in the $500,000 King’s Bishop, a major sprint race on the Travers undercard.

Rival trainer Chad Brown is aware of Saratoga’s infamy. He grew up in nearby Mechanicville, N.Y., and saw his share of horses lose despite being considered virtually unbeatable. He is not nearly as flippant in discussing the Graveyard of Champions.

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“It’s clearly true,” Brown said, adding, “I would say it’s a bunch of factors.”

Saratoga, with a deep and demanding track, is arguably the most perilous stop in thoroughbred racing. The great Man o’ War absorbed his only defeat in 21 starts against Upset in the Sanford Stakes in 1919. Jim Dandy shocked Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers -- at 100-1. Even legendary Secretariat could not match strides with Onion in the 1973 Whitney Handicap.

Saratoga fans treat racing as though it was still enjoying its glory days. They embraced American Pharoah the way they would visiting royalty. Approximately 15,000 fans poured through the turnstiles merely to watch his morning exercise the day before the Travers.

Baffert’s last five starters fell short in the 1 1/4-mile Travers, known as the Mid-summer Derby. “A lot of horses run there that are probably tailing a little bit,” he said. “Pharoah was tailing off a little bit on me, but you’re trying to fit it in.”

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American Freedom and Arrogate, in contrast, are lightly raced and show signs of peaking. American Freedom won his first career start on April 9 at Santa Anita. He placed second, a length and a half behind Exaggerator, in the Haskell Invitational at New Jersey’s Monmouth Park on July 31.

Arrogate, a winner of three consecutive starts,  opposes stakes company for the first time in the Grade 1 Travers. Baffert said of the huge step up in class, “He acts like a horse that screams out for a mile and a quarter.”

Some trainers see Exaggerator as being as vulnerable as the other top horses that ventured here. The son of Curlin makes his eighth start this season.

“I can only read what I see in front of me and I see a maturing horse. He’s carried his weight well. His coat color is great. He still has that exuberance to train,” said Keith Desormeaux, Exaggerator’s trainer. “All of those things as a horseman that you look for in judging the readiness of your horse, he’s checking every box.”

The colt drilled five furlongs in 1:00 4/5 seconds, fifth-fastest of 32 works at the distance, last Saturday.

The light workload surely encouraged the perception that 3-1 Exaggerator is ripe for an upset, when a victory would all but ensure him year-end 3-year-old honors. No rain is forecast, creating expectations for a fast track.

“Maybe they all think we’re on the same playing field,” Desormeaux said. “But Exaggerator doesn’t have anything to prove. He is a dominant horse. It will be fun to prove his dominance on a dry track.”

sports@latimes.com

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