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Counting the lengths

The over-under on American Pharoah's winning margin in Saturday's Travers Stakes at Saratoga is 5.5 lengths. Or it would be, if such a wager existed.

In a race laden with inevitability, the most compelling question has become the winning margin. American Pharoah has won his six races this year by 30 total lengths, or an average of five lengths. But his average margin of victory this year has been 6.25 lengths in races where he has led from the start and controlled the pace, as he almost certainly will Saturday.

In the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, his most recent outing, American Pharoah stalked Competitive Edge through rapid fractions -- 46.14 seconds for the half-mile and 1:09.60 for three-quarters. And then, after putting the sprinter away, American Pharoah cruised home to win by more than two lengths while being taken in hand. Without much encouragement, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 38.15 seconds.

A day earlier, at Saratoga, Texas Red won the Jim Dandy Stakes, the traditional and productive prep for the Travers. After racing at an almost dawdling pace, Texas Red ran the final three-eighths of a mile that day in 36.65 seconds. Frosted, the runner-up, finished in 36.35 seconds.

And so there might be a temptation to ask whether Texas Red and Frosted can run down American Pharoah given a little extra distance -- the Travers is 1 1/4 miles. Resist it. The question's hardly relevant here. The Travers field has no speed-happy sprinter like Competitive Edge that can force American Pharoah into a stalking role. Nor is there anybody fast enough -- even if the Triple Crown winner were altruistic enough to start slow and even if the challenger were sent away from the gate like a bandersnatch -- to get the early jump on American Pharoah. Mid Ocean, Tale of Verve, Frammento and Keen Ice are plodders. The others aren't much faster. Rich in stamina, the Travers field possesses little in the way of speed, except for one horse: American Pharoah. Nobody else in the Travers has ever been on the early lead in any of his races. The only horse in the field with sufficient natural speed to press, if asked, the Triple Crown champion early is Upstart, and he might scratch in favor of the Pennsylvania Derby, according to his trainer, Richard Violette Jr.

Either way, that leaves American Pharoah cruising. And so the Travers should be run much like the Belmont, where American Pharoah and Victor Espinoza slowed the pace down and then sprinted home to win by more than five lengths. (At Belmont, American Pharoah ran the first half-mile in 48.83 seconds, the next half-mile in 49.16 and the final half-mile in 48.66.)

Upstart, Texas Red and Frosted all seem to be approaching a good effort. Keen Ice continues to improve, seemingly getting a little better each race, according to his trainer, Dale Romans. And they might have a remote chance to upset the most talented horse in the race if circumstances didn't line up so overwhelmingly behind him. But they do.

A question for folks compelled to ask questions could be whether American Pharoah might feel the effects of all his travels. He has become the Marco Polo of American racing. But American Pharoah's mere presence at Saratoga tosses even that question out the window, courtesy of the champion's trainer, Bob Baffert, who wouldn't have traveled to New York without consulting his instincts. The effects of all this traveling probably won't become apparent until the Breeders' Cup, if then.

If Upstart stays in the race, he would have an excellent opportunity Saturday to stalk early and finish second. Texas Red, Frosted and Keen Ice should give their typically good efforts. Of the long shots, Smart Transition, another improving sort who could be mid-pack early, is interesting.

But the only truly intriguing question is over or under.