Intangibles cause big upsets.
Intangibles become fact when the heavy favorite is passed with ease on the homestretch.
Here's a possible intangible that came from the pre-race TV coverage of the Travers: The rider might have gone a little Hollywood. American Pharoah's jockey, Victor Espinoza, has signed on to appear on "Dancing With the Stars." Before Pharoah hauled him into the spotlight, Espinoza might have been dancing with the allowance horses. When questioned before the race about what he was doing to prepare for his big show business break, AP's jockey said that he was practicing his dance moves every day.
The pull of unrestricted fame and glory is difficult to resist and even harder to control. In my football handicapping notebook, I have this message: Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson is dating Ciara, a singer. This was reminiscent of Tony Romo throwing passes toward Carrie Underwood in the stands. And Rory McElroy shanking irons after dating a tennis star. Has Wilson already seemed a step slower in the preseason? Had a person heard that Pharoah's jockey had been practicing ballroom moves the week before the Derby, his horse might not have been as highly regarded.
Here's what a horse race fan would have preferred to hear about a jockey's week before the Travers: that he had been working on strategy, what to do if challenged on the back side, what to do on the lead with a fraction you see at a track in the sticks, 48 and change, that slow, or what to do if bumped in the stretch. Not what to do if somebody in ballet shoes stepped on your big toe.
Everything in horse racing takes perfect focus to win: training, riding, betting.
Pharoah made it look too easy. He made the jockey think he could dance his way to immortality, that an experienced trainer could have fun watching a big horse race.
If total focus isn't there, you're more apt to lose.
So now Pharoah is just another great horse.
Change is often the intangible that causes upsets.
So what was different this time?
1. Too much travel. I get tired driving an hour and a half to Oklahoma City. Imagine being hauled cross-country, as was Pharoah, so often.
2. Too much dancing around the issues. They're animals. They need a lot of help. The lead pony is not enough of a dance partner. AP needed somebody to take the lead.
The lesson to the handicapper is stay focused. If a rider is talking about his feet, not the horse's, if the trainer is talking about how much fun the races have suddenly become, beware. Anything that can get you off a 1-5 sucker punch is to be seriously considered. Hearing all those warning signs, plus the fact that even the best horses get beat, only got you to something of a field bet at the Travers. You still have to beat the heavy favorite with the "All" button, or with skills as hard to locate as an intangible bugging a super horse.