In a place where images of horses appear on everything from T-shirts to public artwork, the prospect of the first Triple Crown winner in two generations racing at Saratoga Race Course this summer has the locals in an American Pharoah frame of mind.
“I was in two coffee shops this morning and I couldn’t get through them without people saying, ‘Do you think there’s any chance?”’ Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday. “This horse is a rock star.”
The nation’s oldest thoroughbred racetrack has history on its side, but fans here and elsewhere in the racing world shouldn’t bet the house on the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years racing at Saratoga.
For American Pharoah’s next race, trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat may skip a trip to the Adirondack foothills in favor of the Jersey Shore, home to Monmouth Park, or they could return the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont winner to Southern California, where Baffert is based.
Saratoga has at least one possible option, and maybe two for the horse’s handlers: the Aug. 1 Jim Dandy Stakes and the Travers Stakes, run on Aug. 29. The $1.25 million Travers is Saratoga’s biggest race, with a history dating back to 1864, the track’s inaugural season.
Named after one of the track’s founders, the race, nicknamed the Midsummer Derby, traditionally attracts the sport’s top 3-year-old horses.
But “the Spa” has faced stiff competition in recent years from Monmouth’s $1 million Haskell Invitational, run on Aug. 2.
The New Jersey track has lured some of the biggest names for the Haskell by offering appearance fees to owners and trainers, a practice the New York Racing Association — operator of the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks — doesn’t follow.
Zayat has pledged to keep the horse in training, at least through the end of the year, and said he would leave selection of the next race to Baffert, a Hall of Famer whose horses have won seven of the Haskell’s last 14 runnings.
Baffert’s luck in the Travers hasn’t been as good. He won the 2001 Travers with Point Given, but the horse came out of the race with an injury that ended his career. In four other Travers, his horses finished no better than third.
Winning a Triple Crown doesn’t guarantee a win at Saratoga, long known as the “Graveyard of Favorites.”
In the 1930 running of the Travers, 100-to-1 shot Jim Dandy defeated Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox by eight lengths. In the ‘78 Travers, Affirmed narrowly defeated Alydar, second-place finisher in all three Triple Crown. But Affirmed was disqualified and placed second for interference.
Of the 11 previous Triple Crown champions, only 1941 winner Whirlaway has won the Travers.
The 1973 Triple Crown champion, Secretariat, was beaten by a horse named Onion in the Whitney Stakes, another prestigious Saratoga race.
The Jim Dandy and Travers weekends pack Saratoga every year anyway, and adding American Pharoah to either would have a major spillover effect that would benefit the entire area in terms of hotel bookings and other tourism spending, Shimkus said.
“This hasn’t happened in 37 years,” he said. “For people to be able to see that history, it would be a week-long impact, not just one day.”
Wherever he winds up racing this summer, American Pharoah could be making the next-to-last start of his career. He’s expected to make his final run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Kentucky’s Keeneland on Oct. 31 before being put out to stud in the Bluegrass State.
NYRA spokesman John Durso Jr. said “it’s still too early” to talk about what can be done to convince American Pharoah’s handlers to bring the horse to Saratoga this summer.
If racing fans had their way, it already would be a done deal.
“This should be the next step for him,” said Jim Stanley, owner of the Tin & Lint bar in downtown Saratoga Springs. “It would probably be the biggest thing we’ve ever seen. The week leading up to the race, people would be all over the town.”
If the messages Shimkus received immediately after American Pharoah’s Triple Crown-clinching victory in last Saturday’s Belmont are any indication, New York racing needs to go all out to make it happen.
“It wasn’t five minutes after the race and I had 10 text messages from people saying we need to do everything we can to get this horse to come here,” he said.