Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 30, 2015

A Loss That Actually Adds To A Legend

Thoroughbreds began running at Saratoga Race Course the summer that Union forces held fast at Cemetery Ridge in the bucolic Pennsylvania countryside, repulsing the Confederate infantry of General George Pickett and changing the course of the Civil War. Before there was Churchill Downs or Pimlico, Santa Anita or Gulfstream Park, there was the wooden grandstand next to the mile and an eighth oval on Union Avenue in the little city in upstate New York known for mineral springs and horse racing. So it follows that before there was a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness or a Belmont Stakes, and long before there was any concept of a racing Triple Crown, the Travers Stakes was already established as the premier event of every summer’s meet at Saratoga.

To step onto the grounds of the Spa, a nickname that reflects the healing powers attributed to the area’s many natural springs, is to step back in time. The entry gates are guarded by wrought iron fencing and decorated with fine white latticework. Red and white striped awnings provide a jaunty splash of color to the public areas behind the clubhouse and grandstand. That open air structure, with seating for nearly 20,000 stretches nearly a quarter-mile, virtually the entire length of the front stretch. A gazebo sits in the infield, near a pond on which floats the Travers canoe, always painted with the colors of the race’s most recent winner. Behind the grandstand sprawling picnic grounds are dotted with leafy shade trees. The Big Red Spring, one of the area’s ubiquitous watering holes, sits among the picnic tables and open areas where racing fans spread blankets and lawn chairs on race days.

Bordered by white fencing, a dirt path runs through the picnic grounds. Through a crush of people on days when graded stakes like the Travers are on the card, horses are led along this path from the stables to the large open paddock to be saddled for each race. Seventeen minutes before post time, the clear call of a hand rung bell signals to the jockeys that their work is about to begin.

Thoroughbred racing may be in dire straits at many tracks around the country, where the equine product has become secondary to slot parlors and casinos. Casual fans may pay little heed to races beyond springtime’s Triple Crown and fall’s Breeders’ Cup. But for forty days of racing every summer, when the population of Saratoga Springs swells to three times its normal number, the vibrant energy of a day at the races is alive and well. In addition to thousands of race fans, the Spa attracts top owners, trainers, jockeys and horses from all around the country; in no small part due to the 37 graded stakes races that are contested during the meet. Prominent among them are the $600,000 Jim Dandy early in the meet and the equally rich Woodward on closing weekend. There is also the $1.25 million Whitney and the $1 million Sword Dancer Invitational, the latter run at a mile and a half on the turf. But the oldest and richest of them all is the mile and a quarter Travers, long known as the Midsummer Derby.

On Saturday afternoon Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was led into the second post on Saratoga’s dirt oval, as a crowd capped at 50,000 readied for the 146th Travers Stakes. After losing his first start as a 2-year old, the 1-5 favorite had won eight consecutive races, including all six during his 3-year old campaign. Three of those were the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, which the bay colt swept with increasing ease, ending the 37-year drought since the last Triple Crown champion. Overnight American Pharoah became a media sensation. He was cheered like a rock star while being paraded back at Churchill Downs a week after the Belmont. More than 60,000 were at Monmouth Park in early August to see him toy with the rest of the field while winning the Haskell Invitational. The New York Racing Association probably could have sold 100,000 tickets for the Travers, but wisely chose to limit the crowd to a size that old Saratoga could somewhat reasonably accommodate.

Credit is due American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert. The Pennsylvania Derby offered more money, and since it is run in September would have given their charge a few more weeks to rest and recover from a schedule that once was the norm but is now the exception for 3-year old thoroughbreds. But in addition to being flamboyant Zayat is also a keen student of horse racing. He understands the history of the sport and the special place that Saratoga holds in it. When Baffert reported that their horse had held his weight coming out of the Haskell and was training well, the Travers became the obvious next stop for their champion.

Credit is due them as well for not shying away from the Spa despite its history. For that is only one nickname for Saratoga Race Course. It’s other is the Graveyard of Champions. The legendary Man o’ War raced twenty-one times in 1919 and 1920. In twenty of those races he was first under the wire. His only defeat came as a 2-year old, when he finished second by a half-length in the Sanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga. The immortal Secretariat was sent off as the prohibitive 1-10 favorite at the 1973 Whitney, but second choice Onion led from gate to wire. And twice before the Travers was the race at the Spa in which a Triple Crown winner tasted defeat. In 1930 Gallant Fox was beaten by the 100-1 longshot Jim Dandy, an upset so incredible that a stakes race is now named after the winner. Nearly five decades later Affirmed led arch-rival Alydar at the finish in their final duel, but was set down for interference at the top of the stretch.

It will be said that the Graveyard buried another great horse on Saturday, for 16-1 Keen Ice overtook American Pharoah in the final strides to win by three-quarters of a length. But that does not tell the whole story. In pursuing an ambitious schedule by today’s standards and winning eight races in a row, American Pharoah flew nearly 19,000 miles to run on seven different tracks. To some degree that caught up to him on Saturday, when he wasn’t at his best.

But from the first turn he was harassed by an aggressive ride from Jose Lezcano, a last-minute replacement aboard Frosted when that horse’s regular jockey was injured in a race earlier on the card. Not only did Frosted push the front-running American Pharoah, he did so in close quarters, bumping him repeatedly. At the top of the stretch Frosted put a neck in front after arguably interfering with American Pharoah. It was but one of several times during the race that the favorite could have quit. Instead he rallied to reclaim the lead and put his tormentor away; though in the end he had nothing with which to counter the late running Keen Ice, who came racing down the middle lane.

Sometimes the story of the race is about more than what appears on the tote board. On Saturday horse racing fans, including an NBC audience twice as large as for last year’s Travers, were reminded that no horse is invincible. As Baffert said after the race, “you forget that they all get beat.” In the history of the Spa there have been plenty of those reminders. But while coming up short American Pharoah ran a more determined race than in some of his victories. Every sport is as much about losing as winning, and every contestant is defined by how they handle both. In thoroughbred racing, rarely if ever has a horse been so valiant in defeat.


  1. Great piece!

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