Keen Ice beats American Pharoah to win Travers

Catches Triple Crown winner at wire
Keen Ice passes Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to win the Travers Stakes Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Keen Ice passes Triple Crown winner American Pharoah to win the Travers Stakes Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.

Now the Graveyard has a pyramid.

Triple Crown winner American Pharoah was greeted like the conquering hero he is, but lost for the first time since his career debut just over a year ago when Keen Ice caught him in deep stretch to win the 146th Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.

Many in the sellout crowd of 50,000 wore turquoise-and-gold clothing and Egyptian pharaoh headdresses to celebrate the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, only to be left in stunned disappointment by a 16-1 long shot in the $1.6 million race.

American Pharoah’s defeat by three-quarters of a length reinforced Saratoga’s rep­utation as the “Graveyard of Champions,” and left Whirlaway (1941) as the only Triple Crown winner to also have won the Travers.

American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza were showered with applause as they jogged back to be unsaddled, and Keen Ice’s connections echoed that sentiment.

Trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat expressed an equal mix of pride and sadness over American Pharoah’s loss, which was valiant all the way, but not quite enough to hold off Donegal Racing’s Keen Ice and jockey Javier Castellano, who won the Travers for a record fifth time. Zayat even raised the possibility of retiring his colt.

“He did it for racing. He did it for Saratoga,” Baffert said. “You roll the dice. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

“Pharoah has captured the nation’s attention, maybe even part of the world’s attention, and because of what he accomplished, now that spotlight radiates on us, to the extent you call 50,000 people booing me ‘radiation,’ ” Donegal managing partner Jerry Crawford said.

“American Pharoah’s legacy is not tarnished in any way,” Keen Ice’s trainer Dale Romans said. “Secretariat got beat, Seattle Slew got beat. Affirmed got beat. They are great sportsmen for keeping him running and taking a chance with him.”

American Pharoah went off the 1-5 betting favorite, but faced a stiff challenge from Frosted early, which proved to be enough to soften up the Triple Crown winner later.

An injury to Joel Rosario two races prior to the Travers, when he fell off Bourbon Courage in the Forego and was sent to Saratoga Hospital with back pain, thrust replacement rider Jose Lezcano into the spotlight on Frosted.

Unlike most of his previous races, American Pharoah suddenly had another horse eyeballing him early, as Frosted applied pressure from the outside all the way down the backstretch. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin had said during the week that he was worried about American Pharoah getting away with an easy early lead, but never indicated that his horse might be the one to make him work. And there was nothing easy about this for Pharoah.

American Pharoah was able to separate himself from Frosted as they came off the grandstand turn, but Keen Ice had begun to mount his closing bid on the outside.

Espinoza said Frosted banged into American Pharoah as they headed into the turn, which Lezcano denied.

“The other horse put his chest right on my hips and legs. He hit me pretty hard,” Esp­inoza said. “American Pharoah kind of lost his stride, and from that point, all the way to the turn, he hit me like six or seven times.”

“No, no, I never hit him,” Lezcano said. “I never crossed the line.”

Frosted was neck-and-neck with American Pharoah at the top of the stretch and actually pushed his head into the lead briefly, but American Pharoah took it back.

Baffert said he could see some clues that it wasn’t going to be Pharoah’s day as early as the turn.

“He was getting a lot of pressure from a really good horse. He never left us alone,” he said. “It was just competitive, aggressive riding, so you can’t really knock him for that. On the turn, I thought, ‘Well, he’s really going to have to fight now.’ I could tell he was running on pure guts.

“They weren’t really coming, but then all of a sudden, he just stopped, and that’s what made that other horse look so good. He said, ‘Dude, I’m done, my legs are rubber.’ ”

Keen Ice, who had been tracking in midpack, made steady gains on American Pharoah with a sixteenth of a mile left and went by him in the final strides.

Castellano was on Keen Ice because his regular rider, Kent Desormeaux, had decided to ride Texas Red for his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux. He held up four fingers and his thumb in the winner’s circle to signify Travers wins on Bernardini (2006), Afleet Express (2010), Stay Thirsty (2011), V.E. Day (2014) and Keen Ice.

The victory was especially gratifying for Donegal minority partner Ray Bryan, since he’s a Skidmore College graduate and Saratoga Springs resident.

“I don’t know if there’s anything, ever, to beat this,” he said. “This is the race to win if you’re a Saratogian. And I can’t imagine it against the best horse there ever was in the last three decades.”

The Saratoga fans will have to settle for having seen a Triple Crown winner race, if not win.

“They made this race as huge as it was, probably one of the biggest ever,” Crawford said. “I’m grateful to them for being true sportsmen.”

“We came here because of what we saw on Friday: 15,000 people,” Zayat said. “This is what it is all about, this game.”

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