Handicapping Insights

by Dick Powell

Triple Crown winner AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) worked seven furlongs in 1:23 flat last week at Santa Anita. He followed that up on Tuesday this week with a seven-furlong gallop out in 1:23 1/5. What’s not to like?

When you watch the videos of both works, there is, in fact, nothing not to like. He is getting over the ground like he always does and both workouts would have been even faster had he raced near the rail instead of four paths away from it.

If memory serves me correctly, American Pharoah missed last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) with an injury and did not get back to the races until March 14 of this year. Trainer Bob Baffert was up against a tight schedule with the clock running down but wins in the Rebel S. (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) set him up perfectly for the first Saturday in May.

We liked American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and felt that if they were going to beat him, it would be then and not later. If he got by the Derby, which he did, it looked like he would be hard to beat in the next two legs of the Triple Crown. It all worked out and the races were more coronations than competitive events.

After a brief summer rest, American Pharoah was back on track and romped in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park. It looked like this crop of 3YOs had no shot against him but his owner insisted that Baffert ship him to Saratoga for the Travers S. (G1) and after a strong gallop the day before and a suicidal speed duel with FROSTED (Tapit) for the first mile of the race, he ran out of gas in the deep stretch and was passed by KEEN ICE (Curlin).

The question became, how would he come out of the Travers? Great horses give their all. It’s what makes them great. American Pharoah gave his all in the Travers and when great horses give their all, it takes a while to recover. Baffert wisely announced the day after the Travers that he would train him up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) so that he could build him up to a peak on October 31 at Keeneland.

On the surface, it looks like mission accomplished with two sensational seven-furlong moves indicating that the old American Pharoah is back. Which is entirely possible. So why am I questioning these events and looking at them as if they are negatives?

Six days before the Travers, American Pharoah worked seven furlongs in 1:23 1/5 at Del Mar. All looked well. Until the final yards of the Travers.

Now, we have American Pharoah working lights out and most of my concerns revolve around the question: Why? There is a good chance that at face value, American Pharoah is going great and these workouts are an indication that all is well and that he is thriving. In the hands of a master trainer like Baffert, that is probably what is going on.

But I have this nagging fear that all might not be well and that American Pharoah might be a bit behind in his preparations. Great horses do not have to work great and I am not quite sure why he is training so fast and long almost two weeks before the Classic. Remember, he missed the Juvenile with an injury and all spring there was chatter about a soft tissue injury that was being managed. Jerry Bailey openly talked about it on NBC’s coverage of the Triple Crown.

This year’s Classic field is deep and talented. We have no idea how the class of 2015 will stack up against the class of 2014 but older horses like HONOR CODE (A.P. Indy), TONALIST (Tapit) and SMOOTH ROLLER (Hard Spun) have all won Grade 1 races with BRIS Speed ratings faster than American Pharoah has ever earned. The other 3YOs like Keen Ice and Frosted are competitive on their best day.

And then there is the matter of a 5YO mare who should scare the daylights out of anyone in the race. BEHOLDER (Henny Hughes) won the Pacific Classic (G1) going 10 furlongs in brilliant time and looks like she is coming into the Breeders’ Cup in great form.

Beholder spiked a fever the other day after shipping from California but it looks like a one-day thing and most times, you would not even know about it. Richard Mandella once won four Breeders’ Cup races in one day and for him to take on males again is the ultimate vote of confidence.

On his best day, American Pharoah would be a worthy favorite in the Classic. And, I might even pick him on top like I did in each of the Triple Crown races. But that nagging fear is still on my mind and until it goes away, I have my doubts that he is 100% for the Classic.