American Pharoah is to run Saturday. Every horseman, horseplayer, sportsman, fan and two-dollar bettor should be bubbling with expectation. And so why does this feel more like apprehension, which, of course, is nothing more than expectation flavored with anxiety and a splash of fear?
The 1-5 favorite in the morning line for the 146th Travers Stakes, American Pharoah drew post position No. 2 in the 10-horse field. Texas Red, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the recent Jim Dandy, is the second-choice in the morning line, along with Belmont Stakes runner-up Frosted, at 6-1. Also among those entered are Upstart, Keen Ice, Tale Of Verve and Smart Transition.
And so why the apprehension? The 12th Triple Crown winner has dominated rivals all year, American Pharoah already has beaten most of these horses in the Travers and beaten them easily, and surely he'll do the same Saturday at Saratoga, right? So what's the problem? And where did this flavoring come from, anyway?
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens touched on it Tuesday in a teleconference. Asked if he would like to see the great mare Beholder, whom he rode to an historic win in the Pacific Classic, take on American Pharoah, Stevens said he's ambivalent. On the one hand, as a fan, he'd like to see two great horses challenge each other to discover through competition the very best that lies within themselves. On the other hand, he said, he doesn't want to see either horse lose.
That's where many fans are; that's part of the flavoring. The sport's fans have invested so much emotion in American Pharoah that they can't stand the thought of seeing him lose, at least not in any fluky way and not to any of the nine horses entered against him in the Travers. If after a long campaign he loses to Honor Code or Beholder in the Breeders' Cup Classic, that his fans could accept. But losing to Upstart, Keen Ice or even Frosted or Texas Red -- all horses he has soundly beaten -- that would make fans feel as though they had invested their emotions in the stock market.
And so there's apprehension, with its necessary flavoring of anxiety and fear. Those derive from the impression that American Pharoah has been traveling more this year than Rick Steves. When will it catch up with him?
Based at Santa Anita in Arcadia, California, he traveled to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for the Rebel Stakes. Then he traveled back to Santa Anita. Then he returned to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby. From Oaklawn, he traveled to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, for the Kentucky Derby. From there he went to Pimlico in Baltimore for the Preakness. From Pimlico he returned to his base at Churchill. From Kentucky he traveled to New York for the Belmont Stakes. From Belmont, after sweeping the Triple Crown, he returned triumphantly to Churchill and then traveled back to Santa Anita. From there, he vanned down to Del Mar near San Diego. From Del Mar, he traveled to Monmouth Park in New Jersey for the Haskell. From Monmouth he returned to Del Mar. And Wednesday he's expected to travel from San Diego to Saratoga.
"That's why it's been 37 years [since a horse swept the Triple Crown]," American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, said Tuesday, explaining how tough a horse has to be to sweep the famed series. "A lot of horses will give you a great performance, but I've never had a horse give me six great performances in a row."
So much travel isn't ideal, Baffert said, and for most horses you'd wonder when the toll for it all will be paid. But American Pharoah quite obviously isn't like other horses. He's more like Point Given, Baffert said, who won the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers on his way to earning Horse of the Year honors.
"He was tough," Baffert said about Point Given. "He could handle it. And this horse [American Pharoah] is really tough." He's also extremely intelligent and poised, Baffert pointed out, and those attributes equip him nicely for his journeys.
But all this travel, this hopping and shipping about, isn't the only cause for concern. Immediately after American Pharoah won the Haskell, the colt's hotly pneumatic owner, Ahmed Zayat, expressed his desire to run his champion next in the Travers. Baffert, however, was non-committal. And so the impression remains that this cross-country Travers adventure, with the purse swelling to $1.6 million, is more Zayat's plan than Baffert's. And while Baffert's instincts in such matters are typically visionary, Zayat's are, well, not so much.
And then there's the history of the race itself. Since Affirmed was disqualified and Alydar declared the winner of the 1978 Travers, only nine favorites, or 25 percent, have won the race. Memories of beaten favorites linger in the old grandstand. The place is redolent with memories. Last year, Baffert brought Bayern here, the speedball who would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic. But at Saratoga, he finished 10th as the favorite, 20 lengths back. In 2013, Verrazano finished seventh as the 8-5 favorite. Skip Away and Awesome Again both finished third while heavily favored in the Travers. This is where Corporate Report upset Strike The Gold and Hansel in 1991 and where the great Alysheba finished up the muddy track in 1986, far behind Java Gold. Runaway Groom stunned a Triple Crown trio in 1982, beating Derby winner Gato Del Sol, Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler and Belmont winner Conquistador Cielo. A year earlier, at 24-1, Willow Hour upset Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Pleasant Colony. In the Travers, upsets are commonplace.
The flavoring for this apprehension, in other words, isn't artificial.
But upon further reflection, maybe it's time for some effervescent expectation. Baffert said Tuesday that Zayat hadn't pressured him at all about running in the Travers. The trainer was non-committal initially because he didn't want to raise expectations, he said, in case there was a chance of disappointing. In the end, the decision to run the Triple Crown winner at Saratoga was Baffert's, and he made it based entirely on how American Pharoah has been training since his romp in the Haskell.
And although many favorites have failed in the Travers, odds-on favorites haven't. Superstars generally haven't either. When he won the Travers in 1989, Easy Goer was 1-5; Holy Bull 4-5 in 1994; Thunder Gulch 3-5 in 1995; Point Given 3-5 in 2001; Medaglia d'Oro 3-5 in 2002; Bernardini 1-5 in 2006 and Street Sense 1-5 in 2007. Saturday, American Pharoah should become the latest superstar to shine at Saratoga.
And in time for Christmas, he'll come out with his travel book: "Phlying High and Phlying Phar While Having Phun Racing" by American Pharoah.