09/01/2015 12:31PM

Fornatale: Players handicap Pharoah's Travers defeat


The four biggest upsets in the history of Saratoga: Man o' War, Gallant Fox, Secretariat, and American Pharoah. Both of last weekend's NHCQualify.com winners benefited from Pharoah's defeat, and I tracked them down yesterday to get their thoughts.

In last year's National Handicapping Championship program, Saturday's winner Vincent Carco mentioned that his favorite race of all-time is the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. In the wake of another Triple Crown winner proving something positive about himself in a loss, I asked him if he saw any similarities with Saturday's Travers Stakes.

"That run in defeat by Seattle Slew is still the greatest performance I’ve seen," he said. "I do see some similarities with American Pharoah in the Travers, because he won a grueling speed duel and fought back."

Carco is also quick to point out the differences between the two efforts. "Frosted isn’t exactly Affirmed," he continued, "and American Pharoah didn’t go 22 3/5, 45 1/5, 1:09 2/5 while trying to get 12 furlongs. Not to take anything away from Pharoah – he was very game and had every right to show the rigors of the Triple Crown and all his travel, and the way he tried to fight back in the stretch showed a lot of heart. I hope he comes out of this race well enough to make the Classic at his best."

As they crossed the line on Saturday, a different race sprung to Carco's mind: the 1982 Travers, a much-hyped renewal. "It featured the winners of the three Triple Crown races, but Conquistador Cielo, the Belmont winner by 14 lengths, was odds-on," he explained. "The Derby winner that year, Gato Del Sol, was considered kind of fluky, and Aloma’s Ruler stole the Preakness on the front end. In the Travers, Aloma’s Ruler played the Frosted role and softened up the favorite for an unexpected victory by deep closer Runaway Groom. Both this year's Travers and the 1982 running are reminders that 10 furlongs at Saratoga is tough to get under pressure for even the best horses."

Second-place NHCQualify finisher Howard Welsh had some doubts about American Pharoah coming into the race. For one thing, he wasn't impressed with the speed figures he'd run compared to some of the other great 3-year-olds. And he didn't buy the idea -- espoused by many, including me -- that Pharoah might have run faster along the way if he had to.  "I'm not a big fan of so-called easy, efffortless wins," he said, "They're never as easy as they look and people tend to overreact to them and think horse would run even faster under pressure, which is rarely the case."

Welsh sees a real difference between how horses were once handled and the kid gloves often applied now. "In the old days, trainers weren't afraid to lose these races and there was never the outcry there is now. Soon as they lose they seem to want to retire them. I think you can learn a lot about a horse in defeat."

To him, Pharoah's legacy is only helped by his Travers effort. "I certainly dont think any less of American Pharoah. He showed ton of heart in Travers," he said. "Pressured all the way, he put away Frosted and got beaten by a perfect trip winner."