They did the right thing. In an earlier column I wrongly predicted that the Pennsylvania Derby would be the next race for American Pharoah. I was wrong. The PA Derby, from a strategic point-of-view made the most sense for trainer Bob Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat and the horse. But, there are moments that are bigger than life and bringing American Pharoah to the Travers was the right thing for the sport.
I think we all know the prevailing thoughts. Trainer Baffert was reluctant to bring American Pharoah here. There were many reasons for this which included an assumption that Baffert had a disdain for the track. That I don’t believe for one second. It is one of those examples of sloppy journalism where one person writes it and then everybody else takes it and runs with it. Every publication referenced that Baffert hasn’t had much luck here and that he doesn’t like being at Saratoga. But, we all know that Baffert has brought several horses to the Spa and unlike most trainers, does have a Travers win with Point Given in 2001.
Most of us revere Saratoga Race Course. We live here, we can get there easily and because of that, we think it’s the greatest venue for the Sport of Kings. But, not everybody feels that way. Baffert doesn’t hate Saratoga. He just doesn’t work out of here. He is a California based trainer and that means his barns are at Santa Anita, Del Mar and perhaps a few at Los Alamitos. That’s what he does. Some trainers like D. Wayne Lukas make a point of bringing horses to Saratoga, Baffert doesn’t. Believe it or not, there are other places to run horses in the summertime. Baffert is just a guy who prefers to stay on the West Coast, but for some reason, Saratoga lovers made it in to something else.
We all know that owner Zayat wanted to come here and he probably told Baffert several times his preference. This is Zayat’s fifteen minutes of fame. Sure, he will continue to be a prominent race owner. Who knows, he may own another Kentucky Derby winner again, but with American Pharoah he had himself a once-in-a-lifetime horse, and he wanted to be in the spotlight. That’s pure ego and that’s okay. Zayat has an enormous one and based on his successes both in horse racing and business, it is deserved. But, the man handled his ego with dignity and for the most part, appears to be well-liked by the fans. In the end, Zayat wanted to be around 50,000 people at arguably the greatest racing venue in the world, rather than be at sterile Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pennsylvania with say, 18,000 fans.
Zayat told Baffert very simply that if the horse is 100 percent healthy, can we bring him to Saratoga, and Baffert to his credit agreed. When the colt breezed six furlongs in 1:10.98 the Sunday prior to the Travers and came out sparkling fine, Baffert had no choice but to grant Zayat’s wish. Baffert deserves tremendous credit here. He realized that he was part of something bigger than a horse race. When the industry called on him, Baffert–and Zayat–answered the call and brought the colt to Saratoga Race Course. Zayat, because of his business acumen, knows all about risk-reward and yes, the risk was greater coming to Saratoga, but so too, was the reward, and even though Pharoah lost, the right thing was done.
After the race, the ego-driven Zayat was crestfallen. Arrogance told him that his horse couldn’t lose, but he did. They all do. Horse Racing is a sport to expect the unexpected. As everybody says, if Secretariat could get beat, then so, too, could American Pharoah. In the wake of the loss, Zayat was so distraught that he mentioned that the best thing to do would be retire the colt. This was the typical knee-jerk reaction. He was shocked, sad and devastated because for him the thought of his colt losing was too much to take.
The good thing is that the knee-jerk reaction didn’t last. Within days, Zayat said that the colt is going back to training with the goal of running his last race in the Breeder’s Cup Classic on October 31. As they say, cooler heads have prevailed.
The Travers itself was a great race. For the first time since Firing Line in the Kentucky Derby, a horse took it to American Pharoah. It was a surprise to see Frosted, normally a closer be the one to do it, but those who train horses finally realized that since the Derby, Pharoah pretty much had his own way in the Preakness, Belmont and the exercise ride also known as the Haskell. Pharoah dug down, put away Frosted, but Keen Ice was there to cut down Pharoah and that, my friends is classic horse racing. A great win for trainer Dale Romans, a great race for Keen Ice, a great race by Frosted and yes, in defeat, a great race for American Pharoah. He didn’t have his A game, but he still showed plenty of resolve in finishing second. And, the winning time of 2:01.57 is no joke.
The Pennsylvania Derby was the best race from a spacing standpoint, but American Pharoah will be fine. A race before the Classic would be ideal, but it isn’t necessary. He can train right up to the Classic and certainly win the race. The one thing we know about American Pharaoh is that he loves training. When a horse breezes six furlongs in under 1:11, that’s serious training. The colt will be fine, and it will be exciting to see him run against older horses for the first time and hopefully Beholder, the mare who broke 2 minutes in the 1 ¼ mile Pacific Classic.
The sport called on Team Pharoah to come to Saratoga, not Parx and the team answered the call and for that, they should be commended.
Until next time.