08/29/2015 7:20PM

Keen Ice stuns American Pharoah in Travers

Barbara D. Livingston
Keen Ice rallies to beat Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes on Saturday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – With a half-mile to run in Saturday’s 146th Travers Stakes at raucous Saratoga, trainer Bob Baffert knew his Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, was in trouble. The body language emanating from jockey Victor Espinoza and how hard he had to ride the horse to keep him in front was telling.

Three furlongs later, with an eighth of a mile remaining in the race and the pace-prompting Frosted vanquished, the guts and heart that American Pharoah only had to show perhaps once previously – in the Kentucky Derby – still had him in the lead. The crowd of 50,000-plus on another glorious summer day at this 2015 meet went delirious.

Except for those who looked behind American Pharoah and saw the presence of Keen Ice. With a spent American Pharoah shortening stride, Keen Ice was lengthening his under Javier Castellano, carrying him past American Pharoah 20 yards out from the wire and on to a three-quarters-of-a-length win in the Grade 1, $1.6 million Travers.

Frosted, who put early pressure on American Pharoah, finished third and was followed by Upstart and Texas Red. Frammento and Smart Transition dead-heated for sixth. Tale of Verve, Mid Ocean, and King of New York brought up the rear.

American Pharoah’s loss brought most of the crowd to its knees and knocked the wind out of the sails of owner Ahmed Zayat, his family, and Baffert.

So rocked by the loss was Zayat that, without talking with his trainer or family, he said at a post-race press conference that his “gut feeling is to retire him.”

It’s not an official decision. Zayat was flying back to Southern California Saturday night with his family and jockey Victor Espinoza. There are conversations to be had later with Baffert, but a downtrodden Zayat seemed at a loss about what to do.

“My gut’s saying if the horse shows us that he’s not the Pharoah I know, then there’s no question in my mind what I think is to retire him,” Zayat said. “He doesn’t owe anybody anything.”

American Pharoah’s Triple Crown sweep, the first in 37 years, transcended horse racing, putting him in the mainstream media and bringing the sport worldwide attention. He brought a record crowd to Monmouth Park for the Haskell Invitational on Aug. 2, and approximately 15,000 people came to see him gallop at Saratoga on Friday morning.

American Pharoah, the 1-5 favorite, looked like the lone speed on paper in the Travers, and after breaking cleanly under Espinoza, he opened up a one-length lead in 24.28 seconds. Somewhat surprisingly, Frosted became his closest pursuer.

Frosted was ridden by Jose Lezcano, who picked up the mount when Joel Rosario fell off his mount, Bourbon Courage, in the Grade 1 Forego.

Rosario went to Albany Medical Center complaining of back pain, though X-rays proved negative, according to his agent, Ron Anderson.

Kiaran McLaughlin, the trainer of Frosted, said in his box before the horses entered the gate that he would like to see his horse fifth under the wire the first time.

But Lezcano allowed Frosted to take him into the race, and he was within a half-length of American Pharoah after a half-mile in 48.30 seconds and within a head after six furlongs in 1:11.48.

Entering the far turn, Lezcano had Frosted right alongside American Pharoah. Espinoza claimed he felt Frosted’s chest hit his horse’s hip, and “he turned me sideways,” altering American Pharoah’s stride. Espinoza said Frosted hit him five or six times, though replays don’t bear that out.

Said Lezcano: “He started to get out a little bit, and he touched my horse. I never crossed the line. I never touched him.”

Frosted put his head in front of American Pharoah turning for home, but American Pharoah battled back along the rail and put away Frosted by the eighth pole.

But even with Espinoza keeping after Pharoah, he could not hold off Keen Ice, who won for just the second time in 11 career starts.

“Going into the far turn, I could tell he was struggling a little bit. [Frosted] was really lapped on him, and I thought, ‘He’s really going to have to fight now,’ ” Baffert said. “I could tell right there he was just running on pure guts right there. He did that in the Derby, and we got away with it. When he had to get after him like that; he shouldn’t even have to get after Pharoah. Right then, I thought, ‘Wow. It’s easy to second-guess yourself.”

Keen Ice, a son of Curlin owned by Jerry Crawford’s Donegal Racing and trained by Dale Romans, covered the 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.57 and returned $34. Keen Ice gave Castellano a record fifth Travers victory.

“Turning for home, when I saw those horses had hooked up on the lead for a while, I said, ‘At some point, they have to stop,’ and when they started backing up a little bit, I thought to myself, ‘I think I got it,’ ” said Castellano, who was riding Keen Ice for the first time. “It feels so great to win this race. Unfortunately, you have to beat the best horse in the country.”

The best horse in the country with an uncertain future.