SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Travers, or not?
The owner of American Pharoah has made it clear he wants his Triple Crown winner to run in the $1.25 million Travers at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 29. The trainer, though, seems to be hedging his bets about a track also known as the “Graveyard of Champions.”
A decision is anticipated Sunday, after American Pharoah’s scheduled morning workout at Del Mar in California. On a key issue, owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert agree: The health of the horse comes first, which presumably is why a decision hasn’t been announced even with the Travers just over a week away.
“My job as an owner is that I have a responsibility to do right by the horse,” Zayat told the Albany Times Union. “As of (Wednesday) if you put a gun to my head, we will be shipping (to Saratoga). I say he is the people’s horse and he belongs to everyone. But we can’t say we are going to ship right now because we are very watchful of him. He will let us know.”
The first clue to Baffert’s hesitation came the day after American Pharoah won the Belmont Stakes and became the 12th Triple Crown winner — and first in 37 years.
“I don’t want to find any Onions,” he said, a reference to the horse who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in racing by beating 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.
Here are some reasons Baffert might not be so excited about running American Pharoah in the Travers:
1. GRAVEYARD OF CHAMPIONS
It’s a topic Baffert all but refuses to discuss. His “Onion” remark reveals he’s well aware of Saratoga’s reputation. Three of racing’s biggest upsets have occurred at the Spa.
— Upset did just that by handing the great Man ‘o War the only loss of his 21-race career in the 1919 Sanford Stakes.
— Jim Dandy stunned 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the Travers at odds of 100-1, winning by eight lengths.
— Onion, a winner in just seven of 141 career races, pulled off his shocker with a wire-to-wire win over Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap on Aug. 4, 1973.
And consider this piece of history: Only one of the first 11 Triple Crown winners — Whirlaway in 1941 — went on to win the Travers. The two others who tried were Gallant Fox and Affirmed, who finished first but was disqualified to second behind rival Alydar.
The Spa has earned several nicknames over the years, including “Graveyard of Champions,” “Graveyard of Favorites” and “House of Upsets.”
2. WEAK SLUGGING PERCENTAGE
The Hall of Fame trainer is 1 for 5 in the Travers, winning in 2001 with Point Given. Last year, he won the Haskell and the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern, but in between the horse finished last in the Travers. There’s more. While he has won with 21 of 97 starters since 1999 — 21.6 percent — his Spa record in graded stakes is 8 of 59, a 13 percent clip, according to Equibase. His last stakes win was the 2012 Test with Contested. Baffert visited the track a few weeks ago to scout out the barn area in case American Pharoah shows up and said he wants to make the right decision. He also pointed out that horses who run in the Jim Dandy — a Travers prep four weeks before the “Midsummer Derby” — have a sort of home-track advantage. Four of the last six Travers winners also ran in the Jim Dandy.
3. TOO MUCH NOISE
American Pharaoh is fitted with ear plugs on race days because he is sensitive to sound. He has become agitated before a few races, including the Kentucky Derby. That’s a concern at Saratoga, where horses must walk down a path through a jam-packed picnic area before entering the paddock. On big race days, the fences along the path are lined five deep with cheering fans who have been partying since morning. Security will be tough, even with attendance capped at 50,000. The barn area where American Pharoah would stay is also not the most spacious. Again, tight security would be needed to handle the media crush, along with fans clamoring for a glimpse — or photo — of a Triple Crown winner.
4. STRONG FIELD AWAITS
The best of the rest of 3-year-olds from the Triple Crown races are gearing up, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red seems back in top form after winning the Jim Dandy. Also expected to run are Keen Ice (third in the Belmont, second to American Pharoah in the Haskell), Wood Memorial winner Frosted (fourth in the Derby, second in the Belmont), Tale of Verve (second in the Preakness), West Virginia Derby winner Madefromlucky (second to American Pharoah in the Rebel), Upstart (third in the Haskell) and Far Right (second to American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby). In the three previous Travers with Triple Crown winners, Whirlaway and Gallant Fox were part of three-horse fields, while Affirmed was part of a four-horse field.
Is this the right time for American Pharoah to return? It depends whether the plans call for one or two more starts before his announced final race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31. Also, does Baffert want his horse to log another 6,000 miles to come East again, or perhaps wait a few more weeks for a race at Santa Anita (there’s the Awesome Again on Sept. 26)? American Pharoah, though, has answered every call. He’s won six grueling races in the past 4 1/2 months — two Derby preps in Arkansas, a sweep of the Triple Crown and a victory in the Haskell on Aug. 2.
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