Star power produced one of best Saratoga meets ever

On the header above the entrance to stall 11 of barn 25 on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch, som
Triple Crown American Pharoah walks past the grandstand prior to the Travers at Saratoga Race Course.
Triple Crown American Pharoah walks past the grandstand prior to the Travers at Saratoga Race Course.

On the header above the entrance to stall 11 of barn 25 on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch, somebody has written “PHAROAH WAS HERE 8/15.” The “O” is adorned with the three points of a crown.

Summer camp is over. Pharoah was here.

And so was Liam’s Map and Rachel’s babies and Flintshire. And Keen Ice.

Wise Dan was here in spirit on closing day of the meet, because it coincided with closing day of his career.

The 2015 Saratoga season will always be remembered as the year when a Triple Crown winner came to town for the first time since we last had one of those — Affirmed in 1978.

Take American Pharoah out of the picture, though, and 2015 still went down as one of those memorable meets when terrific horses came out of the woodwork (and, in one case, into the Woodward) on a weekly basis. That’s what Saratoga does.

It’s no coincidence that the first National Thoroughbred Racing Association top 10 thoroughbred poll to come out since Monday includes seven horses who ran at Saratoga.

The three who didn’t run here are Beholder, the fabulous California-based filly; Shared Belief, who is still recovering after breaking his hip in the Charles Town Classic in April; and Lady Eli, who surely would’ve been one of the stars of Saratoga for trainer Chad Brown had she not been diagnosed with laminitis while recovering from a foot injury in July.

The seven who did run here were American Pharoah, Honor Code, Liam’s Map, Private Zone, Keen Ice, Flintshire and Tonalist.

The debate over Pharoah’s loss to Keen Ice in the Travers will go on forever, which is one of the great aspects of this sport.

Did the public gallop the Friday morning before the Travers, in front of an estimated 15,000 people, take something out of him?

This was no typical gallop. Even if there were only 12,000 people there, it was still more than some of the crowds I’ve seen on Jockey Club Gold Cup Day at Belmont Park.

Did all the travel take something out of him? By the time he got back to Del Mar in southern California after the Travers, Pharoah had traveled over 20,000 miles by van and airplane to run in seven races, all outside his home state.

Did the Triple Crown grind by itself — forget the travel — take something out of him?

Did Frosted take something out of him by pressuring the Pharoah for over a mile of the mile-and-a-quarter Travers? Did the late-running Keen Ice benefit from this perfect set-up?

Did he get buried by Saratoga’s “Graveyard of Champions” mystique?

Yes, yes, yes and I forgot how many questions that was. All or most or some of these factors must have equaled the loss by Pharoah, who was uncharacteristically sweaty before the race. The mystique one is fun to consider, but I’m not willing to endorse actual causality in that case.

And yet, and yet . . . he still ran his eyeballs out, didn’t he? Credit where it’s due to Keen Ice, but American Pharoah’s second-place finish by less than a length, after getting hounded most of the way by Frosted, no slouch himself, was a wonder to behold.

As was Liam’s Map’s second-place finish to Honor Code in the Whitney, which was less dramatic than the Travers based on who the players and what the implications were, but more dramatic based on sheer race dynamics.

It was classic front-runner/deep closer yin-and-yang stuff, with the closer — Honor Code— getting the nod this time by maybe two inches. Two lousy inches.

That’s OK, because Liam’s Map came back to blow away the field in the Woodward and looms as a dangerous pace presence for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, unless his connections choose to run in the BC Dirt Mile instead (please, oh, please make it be the Classic).

One personal regret is that I didn’t have the opportunity to get a better look at Flintshire, who won the Sword Dancer during the dizzying flurry of stakes on Travers Day. Loading up a card like that may be good business for the New York Racing Association, but it’s hell on us ink-stained wretches who would like to soak in a great horse like this without having to hustle on to the next thing and the next thing.

Since finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf to champion Main Sequence last November, the world-traveling star Flintshire has run in Hong Kong, France, Dubai and England before gracing Saratoga with his presence.

Saratoga is about the promise of juveniles emerging into stakes ranks for the first time, and one of those whose fan following is on the verge of exploding is Spinaway winner Rachel’s Valentina, daughter of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.

The only other baby Rachel Alexandra will ever foal, Jess’s Dream, also began to make a name for himself  with a spectacular career debut from last to first that would make Honor Code proud.

After a rough 2014 meet that saw a rash of equine deaths that had officials scrambling for solutions, 2015 was relatively quiet on that front. In 413 races run, there were three fatalities — Innovation Economy in the Bowling Green on Aug. 1, On a Snowy Evening on Aug. 14 and the former Eclipse Award-winning steeplechaser Divine Fortune in the New York Turf Writers Cup on Aug. 27. Another five horses died as the result of injuries suffered during training.

The usual bittersweet feeling that comes with closing day was reinforced by the retirement of Wise Dan in Kentucky, due to a tendon injury that was detected a week before he was to make another comeback in the Woodbine Mile in Toronto on Sunday.

The two-time Horse of the Year won the Fourstardave at Saratoga twice, but will be best remembered for epitomizing the spirit of this place last year, when he won the Bernard Baruch after three months off from colic surgery. He didn’t just win it, he won it by about two inches. Two lousy inches.

Lot of that going around.

Categories: Sports

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