American Pharoah was held on the highest pedestal in 2015. Racing and sports fans alike were enamored by him; he had won the first Triple Crown in 37 years, a feat some had thought was no longer possible. He ran like it was all so easy — his stride so effortless, his ears often pricked. It seemed like American Pharoah was almost impossible to beat.
But as the racing season went on and the Travers Stakes approached, an uneasy feeling began to trickle through the horse racing community. Whirlaway had been the only Triple Crown winner to also win the Travers Stakes and that was all the way back in 1941. The race’s home of Saratoga Race Course had been nicknamed “the graveyard of champions” for a good reason — Man o’ War suffered his only career loss in the Sanford, Secretariat was beaten in the Whitney, and Gallant Fox failed in the Travers against Jim Dandy.
If American Pharoah was to win his next slated start in the Travers Stakes, he had to go up against history. Still it seemed like it would be impossible for him to lose. His biggest threat on paper was a colt named Frosted, who Pharoah had already defeated multiple times. While the third-choice Texas Red had won the Jim Dandy (G2), few thought he was capable of upsetting Pharoah either. The others in the gate were longshots — Mid Ocean, Upstart, King of New York, and Keen Ice among others.
August 29, 2019 was a bright and sunny day in upstate New York. It was the perfect day for racing. 50,000 people had crammed into Saratoga Race Course. Though the track could hold more, they capped the event and it was completely sold out. Everyone wanted to be there to witness American Pharoah in the flesh. Those who weren’t lucky enough to be one of those 50,000 crowded around any TV, cellphone, or laptop they could. It was an unmissable event.
The field of ten loaded into Saratoga’s starting gates and all was silent for a moment. Suddenly, the gates clanged open and American Pharoah bounded out smoothly for the lead. He had gotten to his preferred position, but everyone knew that they couldn’t let him get away with it too easy if they were going to beat him. Jockey Jose Lezcano rushed Frosted up to American Pharoah’s flank and pushed him to open up a short lead on the rest of the field.
Frosted pressured American Pharoah to give more speed with every stride they took. He never let Pharoah even take a breath — he was going to have to speed through the entire 1 ¼ mile race. They hit the far turn and Victor Espinzoa had to ask Pharoah to get away from Frosted, but it was harder for him than it should of been. The grey colt on their outside had truly worn him down. His ears were pinned back on his head, a sight rarely seen in many of his great victories.
At the top of the stretch, Frosted put his head in front. But the ever so tough American Pharoah stretched his neck out and finally got away from Frosted. The colt who had pressured him throughout the entire race was finally exhausted. Victor gave Pharoah a few taps from the crop and the pair opened up a two length lead. But Pharoah’s strides weren’t eating up as much ground as they usually had — he was tired too.
On the outside, a dirt-coated colt came charging onto the screen. The only thing visible on him was his bright orange, number 7 saddle cloth. It was Keen Ice. Whereas American Pharoah had been forced to run his heart out throughout the entire race, Keen Ice and jockey Javier Castellano had been waiting patiently off the pace. The race had set up perfectly for them — the pace, American Pharoah and Frosted, were falling apart. He was there to pick up the pieces.
Keen Ice blew by American Pharoah to win by ¾ of a length. The racing world was stunned. Our gallant hero, the winner of his last eight races, had finally been defeated. We had seen Triple Crown winners beaten time and time again, but it stung nonetheless.
We watched Victor hop off the Triple Crown winner and remove his saddle. American Pharoah’s team gathered him up and they walked quietly back to the barns in defeat. The blanket of carnations was draped over Keen Ice’s withers and Castellano raised his helmet to the sky. Fans packed deep around the winner’s circle all held their cameras and cellphones out towards the winner — it was certainly not who anyone had expected, but the joy of Keen Ice’s connections was certainly contagious.
Though we mourned American Pharoah’s loss, it was a great reminder that nothing in horse racing is certain. When it seems like a great champion could never lose, a longshot can come through and wreak havoc on fan’s hopes and bettor’s tickets.
Each year when we watch the Travers Stakes, we remember all the great horses who have felt defeat at Saratoga Race Course and celebrate all of the longshots who finally got their time in the spotlight. This is horse racing in the truest sense — a sport where anyone can win.
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