Donegal Racing

Keen Ice Defeats American Pharoah at Travers Stakes

August 30, 2015


Article via New York Times, Joe Drape. 

ARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — They were fully aware of this historic racetrack’s reputation for felling iconic horses like Gallant Fox and Affirmed, as well as immortal ones, like the great Secretariat. They also knew of its charms, how racehorses are not only loved here but revered and how the people who follow them believe this is truly Valhalla.

American Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, and his rider, Victor Espinoza, also believed they had a special — maybe even an immortal — one of their own when they met in the paddock Saturday in the moments before the 146th running of the Travers Stakes. If ever a horse existed that could dance atop the Graveyard of Champions, the big bay colt in front of them was the one.

They understood that they were asking a lot of their Triple Crownchampion, only the 12th in history and the first in 37 years. In winning eight straight races over the last year, American Pharoah had traveled 18,750 miles to run on seven racetracks. Twenty-seven days before Saturday’s race, he had easily won at Monmouth Park in New Jersey and then flown back to California, only to return east to Saratoga Race Course on Wednesday.

But American Pharoah looked even fitter than he did on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, where he won the Kentucky Derby and launched his successful bid to capture horse racing’s holy grail. Besides, the colt had already beaten six of the rivals lined up alongside him in the starting gate.

So when the gates opened to the roar of more than 50,000 people here on Saturday and Espinoza throttled American Pharoah past the old wooden clubhouse a comfortable length ahead of the field, there appeared no reason to suspect that the Spa, as the track is known, was going to add another monumental heartbreak to its résumé.

Nope, Espinoza glided American Pharoah around the clubhouse turn and settled in for an unhurried run down the backstretch and eventually to the finish line ahead of everyone else in horse racing’s Midsummer Derby. But a funny thing happened on the way to the winner’s circle. In fact, a couple of odd things.

First, the rider of Frosted, Jose Lezcano, decided to make American Pharoah run hard every step of the way. He put his gray colt right on Espinoza and stayed on Pharoah’s flank like a nightclub bouncer hustling an unruly patron out the door.

“The jockey was on top of me,” Espinoza said, “and we were bumping.”

Not only was this a change of tactics from Frosted, who had heretofore mounted late runs to finish fourth to American Pharoah in the Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes, but Lezcano had never been on the colt before Saturday. He inherited the mount on Frosted a little more than an hour before the race, and only because the colt’s regular rider, Joel Rosario, fell off a horse earlier in the card and was taken to Albany Medical Center with lower back pain.

Behind them, Javier Castellano was riding Keen Ice, another late runner, for the first time. Dale Romans, the colt’s trainer, had instructed him to change tactics as well. His colt had finished third in the Belmont Stakes and was the runner-up to American Pharoah this month at the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth.

“Let’s put him in the race,” Romans told Castellano before giving him a leg up.

At the half-mile pole, Espinoza knew he was in trouble. He asked American Pharoah for some oomph, but horse and rider could not separate from Frosted.

“His energy was not the same as it was before — it was not what I’m used to,” Espinoza said.

Worse, Lezcano and Frosted banged into American Pharoah with enough force to knock him off stride, then continued to bounce the Triple Crown champion a half-dozen times as if they were riding bumper cars as they dueled into the far turn.

In the clubhouse, Baffert saw Espinoza struggling and American Pharoah sputtering and got worried. This was not his colt’s A game on display. “He didn’t have the power he usually has,” Baffert said. “His tank wasn’t as full as we hoped.”

As they turned for home, Lezcano lifted Frosted past American Pharoah, and horse and rider looked intent on turning the tables on their nemesis. But American Pharoah refused to lose — he vaulted a half-length ahead as they neared the eighth pole to the full-throated roar of a crowd that sensed an upset had been thwarted.

“It was just guts,” Baffert said of his colt.


Closing fast, however, were Castellano and Keen Ice. Castellano knew Frosted had softened American Pharoah up. But how much?

“When I got closer to him, and I didn’t see him take off, I knew I had a chance,” Castellano said.

Keen Ice kept coming. He put a nose, a neck and finally three-quarters of his body ahead of American Pharoah at the wire.

The final chart shows that Keen Ice covered the mile and quarter route in 2 minutes 1.57 seconds, or fast enough to earn his owners, Donegal Racing, an $850,000 first-place check. His backers scored, too, getting back $34 for a $2 bet.

The history books, however, will tell an altogether different but epic tale about how a hallowed racetrack saw a brave performance from another Triple Crown horse but rewarded a winning one by Keen Ice. Everyone in American Pharoah’s camp was gracious in congratulating the winners. They made no excuses. Still, they were stunned.

“I’m not used to being in this position with him,” Baffert said of American Pharoah, who did everything but win. “It’s hard to digest right now.”

When he does, Baffert perhaps will realize the only thing American Pharoah lost here on Saturday was a horse race.

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