Saratoga Race Course played host to an upset victory Saturday afternoon as Keen Ice rolled past Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to take the Grade 1, $1.6 million Travers Stakes.
It was the first stakes victory for the Donegal Racing-owned Keen Ice, who has hit the board in several big races, including finishing second in the G1 Haskell Invitational last out. Dale Romans trains the 3-year-old son of Curlin out of the Awesome Again mare Medomak, who paid $34 to win.
“We were watching the race in the office and I think sprinting over [to the winner's circle] is the first time I've run in a long time,” said Romans. “[Owner] Jerry Crawford called me this morning and said, ‘Let's put him in the race. We don't need to run second again in a Grade 1, let's try to win.' We put him in the race and Javier [Castellano] rode him perfect. He was never far out of it and turning for home you could almost tell he was going to win.”
Breaking quickly and setting out for the front, American Pharoah looked poised to win his ninth straight race. The gray Frosted, who was runner-up to the colt in the Belmont Stakes, pressed him down the backstretch and drew even with the Triple Crown winner on the far turn.
American Pharoah gamely shook off Frosted to take the lead again, but Keen Ice was moving strongly on the outside, and the heavy favorite found himself in second place as Keen Ice, ridden by Javier Castellano, crossed the wire a Travers winner.
“I followed those two horses [American Pharoah and Frosted] and I just kept tracking and following with them,” Castellano said. “At some point when turning for home, I saw the horses slow down and start coming back to me so I knew that I had a chance to win the race.
“I expected this kind of effort from him today, after I worked him the one time last week. We had a good fit and I thought I had a real good chance to win the race. My horse ran a hard race and to beat American Pharoah, that's a good race.”
Frosted stuck around for third. Final time for the mile and a quarter Travers was 2:01.57 after fractions of :24.28, :48.30, 1:11.48, and 1:35.08.
In 11 starts, Keen Ice has won two races and has finished second or third four times. He was also third in the Belmont Stakes, well behind American Pharoah in that colt's historic victory.
Keen Ice was bred in Kentucky by Glencrest Farm LLC. He sold twice: first as a weanling at the 2012 Keeneland November Sale for $48,000 to Chesapeake Bloodstock, then to Donegal's Jerry Crawford as a yearling for $120,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2013.
It was the first loss for the Triple Crown winner since he finished fifth in his debut last summer at Del Mar.
“He's OK,” said Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah's regular jockey. “Maybe it was just a little too much for him those three weeks, flying back and forth. He was running pretty comfortable there, but not like he used to. By the half-mile pole I knew I was in trouble.”
“I feel bad for the horse, getting beat like that,” said the colt's trainer, Bob Baffert. “Just listening to Victor's [commentary], you can just tell, he wasn't on his A-game today. He tried hard, he looked like he was done way early and he kept fighting on. The winner ran a great race. Pharoah, he dug in today…he didn't bring his A-game.
“You never know how the horse is feeling until you run him. He traveled and he shipped well, but I could tell by Victor's body language that he was done at the half mile pole and he kept trying. That's the only reason he ran second, it's because he's such a great horse but the winner ran a really great race.”
When asked if American Pharoah lost because Frosted pressured him on the backstretch, Baffert said: “He [American Pharoah] could do it easy but I could tell by Victor's [Espinoza] body language, that [American Pharoah's] tank wasn't as full we were hoping it would be. He got beat.”
Baffert is unsure what is next for the Triple Crown winner.
“I don't know, I wanted to see how taxing this race was on him,” said Baffert. “This is something we have to sit and figure out, I'm not really used to being in the position with him, so it's sort of hard to digest right now.”
Owner Ahmed Zayat said in the post-race press conference that his gut feeling was to retire the colt.
“So when I'm telling you I'm second guessing myself, it's because now, if the horse is tailing off — and I need to speak to Victor — and he's not the Pharaoh we are used to, even though he fought hard, then I have a responsibility for my horse, and I have to come, as I told you, now say it was unbelievable run,” Zayat said. “He made so much happy my family and Bob's family and everybody in this sport, but my gut feeling say, you know, maybe it's time to really be on Pharaoh's schedule, and he told us today he wasn't the Pharaoh we know.”
American Pharoah was attempting to become only the second Triple Crown winner in history to win the Travers Stakes; Whirlaway captured the event in 1941.
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