The biggest question in racing right now looms over the decision of where American Pharoah will race next in preparation for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland in Lexington on Halloween night.
The connections have said he’ll likely race twice before the Classic and his first stop will be either Monmouth Park for the Haskell Invitational (Aug. 2) or Saratoga Race Course for the Jim Dandy Stakes (Aug. 1) or the Travers Stakes (Aug. 29).
In a tweet last week, Zayat said Saratoga was in front of the Haskell, but I’m not buying what he’s selling.
— Ahmed Zayat (@jazz3162) June 18, 2015
Here’s why. First, Bob Baffert owns the Haskell. He has won the race a record seven times, most recently with Paynter (2012) and Bayern (2014), who used it as a stepping stone to the Classic. Bayern did take a misstep by running back (too quickly, mind you) in the Travers, finishing last.
Secondly, the race is only nine furlongs. This would make a lot of sense after the grueling Triple Crown trail as a good distance for Pharoah to run back in his first start after winning the Crown.
Third, Monmouth is a speed-favoring track that is kind to front running types like American Pharoah. It’s right up his alley and would be the perfect place to come back, setting up a third off the layoff start in the Classic.
Lastly, Baffert knows it would be difficult to win the Travers without running in the Jim Dandy. P.S. They don’t call Saratoga the "Graveyard of Favorites" for nothing.
On a historical note, only three of the previous 11 Triple Crown winners ran in the Travers, with Whirlaway (1943) being the lone winner. Gallant Fox (1930) and Affirmed (1978) both finished second, the latter via disqualification surrendering the win to Alydar.
Yes, I’m pulling out the Kreskin mask for another little prediction. I think he goes from the Haskell to the Awesome Again at Santa Anita before shipping to Kentucky in October.
Why the Awesome Again?
I think they want to give the hometown California folks one more opportunity to see him in action. That race is also at nine furlongs and would almost guarantee he would be going into Keeneland on a winning note and a potential nine-race winning streak.
Shared Belief won last year’s Awesome Again and the 2013 winner Mucho Macho Man used that race to prep for his win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Awesome Again will be run on Sept. 26, which would be five weeks before the Classic. It would also be his first test against older horses, instead of doing it for the first time in the Classic.
Other possibilities for the second race would be the restricted to 3-year-olds Pennsylvania Derby (Sept. 19) at Parx, which would be loaded with financial incentives for the connections or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (Oct. 3) at Belmont Park. The latter would also be against older horses at the Classic mile and a quarter distance.
It will be interesting how it all plays out and regardless of where he runs, if he does continue to race through the Classic we all win.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.