What, exactly, were Victor Espinoza on American Pharoah and Frosted's rider, Jose Lezcano, doing as the two horses rounded the final turn into the home stretch of Saturday's $1.6-million Travers at Saratoga?
This much I know: They weren't playing footsie.
Photographs taken for the New York Racing Association by Arianna Spadoni show how closely the two horses and riders were engaged in battle with about a quarter of a mile to run. Keen Ice, the eventual Travers winner, was the beneficiary of the affair between American Pharoan and Frosted, sitting just a few lengths behind the dueling duo as the field turned into the stretch, then passing them both in the final furlong.
Lezcano has been criticized in some quarters for riding to beat American Pharoah instead of riding to win on his own mount. Lezcano was aboard Frosted only because regular rider Joel Rosario was taken to a nearby medical center an hour earlier after being thrown from his mount on the turn of the Forego Stakes. (Rosario was not seriously injured but was off his mounts for the next two days.)
Lezcano put Frosted into the race almost immediately, tracking American Pharoah into and around the clubhouse turn, and then racing on his right flank in the run down the backstretch. Taking back and allowing the champ to have his own way on the front end hadn't worked in previous races, so I can't question Lezcano's tactics to this point.
Espinoza had American Pharoah about three paths off the rail as they made their way down the backstretch and into the far turn, with a half-mile of the Travers remaining.
That's when Frosted and Lezcano stepped up the pressure. American Pharoah went the opening quarter-mile in a leisurely :24.28. His second quarter went in :24.02 for a half-mile split of :48.30. The third quarter mile was the fastest in the race: 23.18.
From the half-mile pole to the quarter pole, American Pharoah and Frosted raced as a team, getting the fourth quarter of the 10-furlong Travers in :23.60.
When they emerged from the turn, American Pharoah was no longer two or three paths out. As the Equibase chart states, American Pharoah “entered the stretch against the rail.”
He was shoulder to shoulder with Frosted, who held a very narrow advantage with a quarter mile to run.
The jockeys were leg to leg – Lezcano's left boot pressed up against the right foot of Espinoza.
Their positioning was almost reminiscent of the “leg lock,” an old trick that pre-dates film patrols and digital cameras some riders employed to win races. This and other cunning practices were reviewed in a Chicago Tribune article from way back in 1893 under the headline “Schemes of Jockeys, How the ‘Boys' Ride Horses to Victory or Defeat.”
“Another trick practiced by these little fellows is called the ‘leg lock,' and when put into practice has more to do with the result of the race than the uninitiated are likely to believe,” the writer stated. “In effect, it is one jockey holding the other one back, and this is accomplished by means of the ‘leg lock.' Two horses are leading the field, one a neck ahead of the other. As they round into the stretch they are running close together. The jockey on the lead sees his chance and draws closer to his opponent until the horses almost touch. He lets the second horse gain on him until the leg of his opponent touches his leg from behind. That is just what the little rascal wanted. Now let his opponent win if he can. Every lunge of the second horse pushes the first one ahead, tiring itself and easing the flight of the other until the final spurt, when the horse with the advantage thus obtained comes in the winner.”
“Leg locking? That's going way back,” said Chris McCarron, who started a jockey school in Kentucky when his Hall of Fame riding career ended. “You do that to prevent a horse from passing you. Move your foot out and catch that other rider's foot. But that was before they had cameras, back in the 1930s and ‘40s, and they rode a lot longer (stirrups were lower).”
That, of course, did not happen in the Travers. The riders' legs were not locked, and American Pharoah was not propelling Frosted forward.
There was no tugging of saddle towels or slashing at each other with the riding crop, either. This was not Brokers Tip and Head Play in the “fighting finish” of the 1933 Kentucky Derby or Seabiscuit and Ligarotti in their Del Mar match race of 1938, where such tactics were employed and almost celebrated by the racing public
But there was some gamesmanship going on. Most will call it race riding. I imagine Lezcano was hoping that pinning American Pharoah to the rail on the turn might intimidate the Triple Crown winner.
No such luck.
American Pharoah fought off Frosted and gradually inched away from that rival, holding a half-length advantage with a furlong to run.
But a combination of factors – a compressed racing schedule, cross-country flights, heating up and washing out slightly going to the gate, and that mano-a-mano combat from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole – took their toll, and when a determined and improving Keen Ice made his run in the final furlong, American Pharoah had no answer.
Espinoza said after the race there were bumps on the turn, several of them, between American Pharoah and Frosted. Lezcano deflected the criticism, telling reporters after the race that Espinoza's horse “was coming out.”
Was Lezcano doing more than race-riding?
McCarron looked at a blow-up of Arianna Spadoni's Travers photo and reviewed a slow-motion replay of the incident. He said he didn't see any evidence of a “leg lock.”
The photo, McCarron said, “shows just how tight the top riders can ride to intimidate without actually fouling.”
It ain't beanbag. That's for sure.
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