Keep running against 3-year-olds or graduate to older horses?
by John Furgele
If you’re old enough to remember the first Naked Gun movie which debuted in 1988 and starred Saskatchewan born Leslie Nielsen there was a scene to remember. In it, things are exploding in the background and Nielsen’s character, Frank Dreben, says, “Please disperse; there is nothing to see here.”
The reason I bring this up is the movie reminds me of the plight of horse racing superstar American Pharoah. Where will he run next? Who will run against him? Will it be the Haskell? The Travers? Both? What about the Jim Dandy? The Woodward? The Whitney? The beat goes on to be sure.
We all remember how American Pharoah electrified the nation on the first Saturday in June when he romped in the Belmont to capture the elusive Triple Crown. That said, a month has passed and the memory is starting to fade, so the question is simple. When and where will he run next?
The NYRA, which recently announced its plans and prices for the 2015 Saratoga meet wants the Pharoah to run here badly. Senator Chuck Shumer, always primed for a publicity opportunity started a petition imploring the connections to come to the Saratoga Race Course this summer. The Saratoga meet, despite a decrease in attendance in recent years can stand on its own even if American Pharoah bypasses Spa Town. And, unlike Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course, there will never be crowds that near 100,000. There is no infield and the NYRA will cap attendance to keep things manageable. If American Pharoah did come to the Spa, the crowd would definitely spike, but what is exactly best for the Triple Crown winner?
On Thursday, the connections announced that the colt will run in the Haskell Invitational on Sunday August 2 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. It certainly has validity. Trainer Bob Baffert has won the race seven times, the nearly two month gap between the Belmont is more than sufficient and the $1 million purse certainly doesn’t hurt. Monmouth has also been known to pay appearance fees to lure a star horse, which also doesn’t hurt. Appearance fees are something that the NYRA doesn’t do.
If American Pharoah runs well at the Haskell at 1 1/8 miles, he can certainly come back four weeks later to run the Travers at 1 ¼ miles at Saratoga. For many that would be a win-win, two races at two parks with guaranteed good crowds and healthy handles. In fact, all 12,000 reserved seats have been sold for the Haskell and that was before owner Ahmed Zayat announced intent.
Truth to be told, when I heard that the Haskell was the next race, I yawned. And, it was a big yawn. Nothing against the Haskell; I look forward to it every year and last year’s winner, Bayern, went on to win the Breeder’s Cup Classic. We know it’s a good race, a very good race, but American Pharoah has no business running there. There simply is no benefit in competing here.
He also doesn’t benefit running in the Travers either. Sorry Saratoga, but it’s true. Yes, the Travers is a classic American race at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles, but the thought of the colt running in it also produces a yawn. If it happens, there will be excitement and dripping anticipation, but here’s hoping that it doesn’t happen and here’s why.
American Pharoah has nothing else to prove running in restricted races against 3 year-olds. He has already demolished them. He stomped on them in the Rebel Stakes, then truth-to-be-told as good as he was in the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, his best race was probably the Arkansas Derby on April 11 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, AR, where the colt glided with ease to victory. If he beats more 3-year-olds in the Haskell and Travers, it would be just more of the same. His record would improve as would his legend, but he probably has more to lose than he does to gain.
The other problem with the Haskell and Travers is the owner’s intent. The plan is to race him three more times, then retire him to stud after the October 31 Breeder’s Cup Classic. If that’s the case, then it is imperative to see Pharoah run against older horses sooner than later. Why not try the Whitney Handicap on Saturday, August 1? There he would face older horses and there would also be a $1.25 million purse. Now, if the plan was to run him as a 4-year-old, then forget what I’m saying and stay with the 3-year-olds, but we all know that after 2015, it’s off to the breeding shed.
The prior two Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) —ran as 4-year-olds, so they could do things differently than American Pharoah can and will. Slew and Affirmed even ran against each other in 1978. But 2015 will be the end of the line for Pharoah and while that’s understandable, it’s also sad.
With three races left in his career, why not a Whitney-Jockey Club Gold Club double before the Breeder’s Cup? The Jockey Club race is in late September at Belmont Park at 1 ¼ miles and would be a tremendous prep for the Keeneland based Breeder’s Cup. The Woodward is contested the week after the Travers at Saratoga and it would be a nice race against older horses. However, the Woodward has just a $600,000 purse. Is that enough to entice the sport’s new superstar? We have seen the NYRA jack up prices to get tickets to its meet, but along with $100 picnic table rentals we have not heard them try to entice American Pharoah by upping the purses at both the Travers and Woodward to get the sport’s biggest star. Would a $2 million Travers purse help land him? How about a $1.2 million Woodward purse? The NYRA has never paid appearance fees and I think that’s a good thing, but if this is the one chance to land the Triple Crown winner, why not go all in by increasing those purses?
The Pacific Classic at Del Mar would also be a good race. Run at 1 ¼ miles with a $1 million purse, it would give the California bred a chance to run in his home state and would provide another opportunity to run against older horses. With the Haskell all but a lock, it might be tough to run him back in 20 days now that the Triple Crown grind is over.
Deciding which race to run is far from easy. All the tracks want him. Heck, Canterbury Park in Minnesota has offered to alter the Mystic Lake Derby on Saturday, August 29 to accommodate Pharoah. They would increase the purse from $200,000 to $2 million and would move the race from turf to dirt. The $2 million purse is the same as the Kentucky Derby and in North America, only the Breeder’s Cup Classic, at $5 million is richer.
Everybody has an opinion on where and when the great American Pharoah should run again. I just don’t think there is anything to prove by continuing to run against 3-year-olds. That said I would be not be shocked to hear Baffert point to a Haskell-Jockey Club Gold Cup plan. That would satisfy many. He would get to another track (Monmouth) and then would take on older horses at the scene of his epic moment, Belmont Park. The Pennsylvania Derby at Parx (also in September) might have something to say before it’s over as well, so who really knows what will happen.
It’s easy to say that American Pharoah should run at the nation’s oldest race course and the best attended meet in the country, but that doesn’t mean the Travers is the best situation for the colt and his connections. Right now, it’s the Haskell, but after, please stay tuned.