There was only one way American Pharoah was going to lose the Travers: by having an off-day.
American Pharoah had defeated Keen Ice three straight times and beaten him easily every time. But it was Keen Ice -- not American Pharoah -- who had his picture taken in the winner's circle in the early evening Saturday at Saratoga, following the biggest upset of the racing year. A horse that had won one of 10 starts and lost to Pharoah by a combined 18½ lengths over the course of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont and Haskell, managed to beat the Triple Crown winner. It's not supposed to happen that way, but it does.
These horses, they will fool you. We tend to become so infatuated with them that we start to believe they are invincible, that all you need to do is put the saddle on them, turn on the ignition and watch them motor around the racetrack on their way to once again dominating those silly enough to get in the starting gate with them. We lose our sense of logic.
But sooner or later, we find out there are no perfect horses.
American Pharoah suffered his second career loss Saturday and his first since he unraveled in his lifetime debut. Secretariat lost five times (once via DQ). Seattle Slew suffered three defeats. Affirmed had seven. Zenyatta finally lost. Big Brown couldn't even make it around the racetrack in the Belmont Stakes against one of the weakest group of opponents ever assembled in that race. A horse named Upset upset Man o' War.
In horse racing, this stuff happens. There is no other explanation for why American Pharoah lost.
If ever there was a case in which a beaten odds-on favorite had no excuse, this was it. Just as most had predicted, he got an easy trip. Even though Frosted was nipping at American Pharoah's heels for much of the race, the pace was soft -- ridiculously so. They went fractions of 24 1/5, 48 1/5 and 1:11 1/5 before heading for home. Compare that to the Haskell, in which they went in 23 1/5, 46 and 1:09 3/5. American Pharoah should have hit the quarter pole, switched gears, run off and hid from the field after the trip he had. Instead, he couldn't hold off Keen Ice.
Nor was the time between races or a taxing schedule to blame. Victor Espinoza told the NBC cameras that coming back in three weeks might have been a little much for American Pharoah. There are plenty of problems with that supposition, starting with the fact that the Haskell was four weeks ago, not three. Sorry, Victor.
No matter, time between races should not be a factor for a horse that won the Preakness off two weeks rest and did what many thought could no longer be done in winning three Triple Crown races over the span of five weeks.
"He just didn't bring his A-game," dejected trainer Bob Baffert said afterward.
It's worth wondering if Baffert really wanted to come to the Travers, a race in which, for whatever reason, his mojo always seems to disappear. In the end, he came because the purse was $1.6 million and because it was the right thing to do. Owner Ahmed Zayat seemed to understand it would have been an insult to racing, Saratoga and American Pharoah to keep him out of such a prestigious event at such a historic racetrack. He did the sporting thing and came, and it cost them.
As expected, the Baffert-Zayat camp had nothing pertinent to say about where American Pharoah will go next. The most obvious options are the Pennsylvania Derby, the Awesome Again at Santa Anita or an extended rest between now and the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Chances are the answer is none of the above. Some, including, of all people, Cheech Marin of Cheech & Chong fame, thought the best course of action after the Belmont would have been to retire the colt. The logic was he is so valuable as a sire prospect that there is too much at risk to race him again.
With the Travers loss, retirement has to be in the back of the minds of the people at Coolmore, where American Pharoah will stand at stud. No one will hold the Travers loss against him, but that won't be the case if he is beaten again; a second defeat would likely tarnish his legacy and value as a sire at least somewhat. I don't think the powers that be will take that risk, but I hope I'm wrong.
In the meantime, as we await a decision about Pharoah's future, all Saturday proved is anyone can have a bad day -- even a super horse.