SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Eventually, even the greatest thoroughbreds get beat, and Saturday it was American Pharoah's turn. The Triple Crown winner became the latest victim of ancient Saratoga, "The Graveyard of Champions.''
Pharoah went down fighting but couldn't hold off closer Keen Ice in deep stretch of the 146th Travers Stakes. For the first time in his last nine races, the world's most popular horse came up short, finishing second by three-quarters of a length.
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Maybe it was fatigue from his third cross-country flight in a month. Maybe it was the relentless pressure from Frosted, who softened him up before fading to third. After the 1-5 favorite left Frosted behind in upper stretch, Keen Ice and jockey Javier Castellano came at Pharoah on the outside. The 16-1 shot overcame a 2½-length deficit in the final furlong to score one of the biggest upsets in Travers history.
"Javier rode him perfect,'' trainer Dale Romans said. "I think sprinting over to the winner's circle is the fastest I've run in a long time.'' Big man rumbling! Romans is about 6-2, 300 pounds, so it was like a defensive tackle returning a fumble to the end zone.
After leading through a pressured 6 furlongs in 1:11.48, Pharoah's rider, Victor Espinoza, knew he had a problem. "He was running OK, but not like before,'' Espinoza said. "At the half-mile pole, he was a little bit in trouble. That's how it goes.''
Trainer Bob Baffert took solace in the grit that Pharoah showed his millions of fans. "I feel bad for the horse getting beat like that,'' he said. "He wasn't really on his 'A' game today. He tried hard and dug in, but his tank wasn't as full as we thought it was going to be.
"There is nothing different Victor could have done. The winner ran a great race. When you get beat, you've just got to suck it up.''
On paper, it appeared as if Pharoah could repeat his front-running romps in the Belmont and the Haskell, but Frosted didn't give him a breather. Jose Lezcano, who picked up the mount when Joel Rosario was injured two races earlier, never let Pharoah get more than a length in front.
Espinoza said Frosted made contact with him in upper stretch when Pharoah was along the rail. Frosted briefly led by a head, but the superstar quickly regained the lead and took off for the wire. The Pharoah-centric crowd of 50,000 roared, but it was false hope.
"When he finally shook Frosted off, I thought, 'Well, maybe he has a chance,' " Baffert said. "What we saw the last three-eighths from him was just guts. Guts and glory.''
Courage wasn't enough against Keen Ice, who was full of energy and ready to pounce. "I just kept following those two horses,'' Castellano said. "Turning for home, I saw them slow down and start coming back to me, so I knew I had a chance to win.''
Castellano rode Keen Ice for the first time because Kent Desormeaux was on Texas Red, the 5-1 second favorite trained by his older brother, Keith Desormeaux. Texas Red finished fifth, 6¼ lengths behind Upstart.
It was only the second win in 11 starts for Keen Ice, who ran 1¼ miles on a fast track in 2:01.57 and paid $34. The bay son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin earned $850,000, raising his career total to $1,490,995 for the Iowa-based Donegal Stable. Fourth time was the charm for Keen Ice, who chased Pharoah under Kent Desormeaux in the Kentucky Derby (seventh), Belmont (third) and Haskell (second).
"He was never far out of it,'' Romans said, "and turning for home you could almost tell he was going to win.''
That was something Pharoah's fans couldn't bear to watch, and something they never thought they'd see.