SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - There was gridlock outside the track at 7 a.m. Friday, when drivers gladly paid $7 to escape the aggravation and park on somebody's front lawn. An estimated 15,000 fans poured into Saratoga's grandstand, and perhaps 3,000 mobbed the backstretch. All of them there to see a very fast brown horse.
Such is the drawing power of American Pharoah, whose Triple Crown sweep made him a mainstream obsession. A local cable station's live broadcast showed Pharoahites packed three deep on the rail all the way down the backstretch. As a security guard said: "He's a big celebrity.''
Trainer Bob Baffert "was overwhelmed by everything and all the fans. It keeps growing and growing. This is what you want to see in horse racing. It really needed a boost.''
Pharoah stepped on the track at 8:50 and galloped about 1 1/2 miles on a cool, sunny morning. He heard cheers and applause as he passed the finish line with exercise rider Georgie Alvarez, and they were back in the barn a few minutes later.
"I feel very happy with the way he went today,'' Baffert said. "He's very happy here. This is beautiful horse country. I think he thinks he's at camp.''
After being walked for 15 minutes, it was bath time. "It's a Kodak moment,'' Baffert said before Pharoah preened for dozens of clicking cameras. When he switched from a head-on pose to a profile, a woman gushed, "Aw, how cute.''
Baffert calls him "a baby around the barn and a beast on the racetrack.'' The 1-5 morning-line favorite is expected to go into beast mode Saturday against nine rivals in the 146th Travers Stakes (NBC, 4 p.m., 5:46 post time). There isn't much other speed, so jockey Victor Espinoza may try to repeat his wire-to-wire Belmont Stakes and Haskell runaways.
Dallas Stewart, who trains Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve, admitted, "If American Pharoah runs his race, we're all running for second.''
Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Belmont runner-up Frosted, said: "We were hoping he would go to [the Pennsylvania Derby] or somewhere else. We're sitting on go, but I don't know if we're good enough.''
Trainer Keith Desormeaux and jockey Kent Desormeaux, his brother, have Jim Dandy winner Texas Red. After a foot bruise took Pharoah out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, Texas Red crushed it by 6 1/2 lengths. A foot abscess forced him off the Kentucky Derby trail in February.
"Once we saw we couldn't make the Triple Crown, we had our eyes on the Travers,'' Keith Desormeaux said. "Pharoah seems bulletproof, but it seems we've got a good combination of freshness and experience.''
Dale Romans' Keen Ice chased Pharoah in the Derby (seventh, beaten 8 3/4 lengths), Belmont (third, 7 1/2) and Haskell (second, 2 1/4). At least he's gaining on him.
"I want to thank [NYRA CEO] Chris Kay,'' Romans said, "for capping the crowd at 50,000 and limiting the number of people who are going to boo my horse.''