SARATOGA SPRINGS - On the morning after American Pharoah's first defeat in more than a year, trainer Bob Baffert put the Triple Crown champion into "petting zoo" mode. As Baffert held his shank, Pharoah kissed the faces of young girls who fed him little carrots as dozens of cameras clicked.
Baffert said the colt had bounced back well Sunday from a grueling race in which he lost to Keen Ice by three-quarters of a length. "He had a tough go, and he fought valiantly,'' he said. "He was blowing pretty hard after the race, but he cooled out well and looks good today.''
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Minutes after the Travers, owner Ahmed Zayat spoke of possibly retiring Pharoah. "You start questioning yourself,'' Zayat said. "Have I pushed the envelope too much? You have to say to yourself, 'Is the show over? Is it the time?' ''
Zayat returned to California on Saturday night, and there was no retirement announcement. Baffert said he hadn't spoken with him Sunday morning. "Mr. Zayat is a very emotional man,'' he said. "We were all in shock, really surprised to get beat. We really weren't prepared for a losing speech.''
During his news conference, Baffert got a call from his assistant, Jimmy Barnes, whom he told, "I'm just trying to put out some fires here.''
Baffert, a "wait and see" guy, didn't rule out running Pharoah in the Breeders' Cup Classic Oct. 31 at Keeneland. "Ahmed Zayat gets to call the shots,'' he said. "It's his horse. If the horse showed me something I didn't like, I would tell him.''
Baffert wouldn't speculate about if and when Pharoah would run again. "We just don't know,'' he said. "If he was tailing off, we'd make that call [to retire him]. There are a lot of rumors out there.''
Jerry Crawford, Keen Ice's lead owner, saluted Pharoah, who ran 1¼ miles about 1½ seconds faster than he did in the Kentucky Derby. "I want to say a sincere thank you to the Zayats for bringing American Pharoah to the Travers,'' he said. "It was a very sporting gesture.''
Unforeseen circumstances from out of the blue contributed to Pharoah's loss. Two races before the Travers, Joel Rosario, Frosted's regular rider, was unseated and hospitalized with lower back pain. (He was released from Albany Medical Center and is day to day with body soreness.) Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin put Jose Lezcano on Frosted, who pushed front-running Pharoah hard to midstretch.
McLaughlin was asked Sunday if that was planned. "Yes, I told him to go like hell,'' he said, smiling. "No, I didn't. I told Lezcano that American Pharoah probably would go and Upstart would be second and we would be third to fifth. It all changed when Frosted broke sharp.
"The problem was that 30 minutes before the race, everything changed.''
Baffert thought Frosted's aggressiveness probably cost both horses and set it up for closer Keen Ice, who had lost three times to Pharoah. Baffert praised trainer Dale Romans for pulling off one of the biggest upsets in the Travers' 146 runnings.
"Dale's a great guy," Baffert said. I'm happy for him.''
Romans returned the compliment, saying Baffert doesn't get enough credit for being a sportsman and an ambassador for the sport.
Baffert said when he and the Zayats walked into a restaurant Saturday night, they received a standing ovation from people who thanked them for turning Saratoga into "Pharoahtoga." Some of Crawford's partners were there, and he said the Pharoah crew went over and congratulated them.
"It was one of the most positive losses I've ever had,'' Baffert said. "He almost pulled it off. We weren't disappointed. We were just sad.''