In the aftermath of Saturday’s Travers (G1), it’s an interesting counterfactual to wonder about the effect of the last-minute rider change for Frosted, who tired to third after unexpectedly pressing American Pharoah early.
His regular rider, Joel Rosario, would probably have employed the more patient tactics that have worked well since the pair teamed up in the spring. But Rosario went down in a spill a couple of races earlier on the card in the Forego (G1). Once it was determined that he had to go to Albany Medical Center for X-rays, that put paid to any hopes of his guiding his familiar partner in the “Midsummer Derby.”
Jose Lezcano landed the plum pickup mount and made an on-the-spot tactical decision to prompt American Pharoah. After all, Frosted had comfortably gotten himself into a stalking second, while the Triple Crown champion was loping through an opening quarter in :24.68. Lezcano would logically have thought that, unless someone went up to force the issue, “Pharoah” would enjoy another cakewalk on the front end. And with Frosted being in position to do so, Lezcano moved him onto the champion’s flank as they advanced down the backstretch.
That move appeared to pay dividends rounding the far turn, when Pharoah uncharacteristically came under a ride after six furlongs in 1:11.48. Frosted was traveling the better of the pair and briefly headed the Triple Crown winner at the top of the stretch. By that point, eventual winner Keen Ice was several lengths back and already under the whip.
But as we all saw, Pharoah showed the proverbial “heart of a champion” to come again and repel Frosted. Thus worn out from his protracted battle, Pharoah had nothing left when Keen Ice stayed on his typically dour fashion and edged clear in the final yards.
Frosted finished a further 2 1/4 lengths adrift in third, and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin commented Sunday on the rider change.
“It’s so tough to lose your jockey 30 minutes before the race,” McLaughlin said. “Joel has been working him since March and knows him so well and rides him so well. We didn’t want to engage (American Pharoah) that early but Jose rode him well.
“It looked like American Pharoah would be on the lead, maybe Upstart would press him, and we’d be third to fifth. We always break well, but just try to sit third to fifth. He took it upon himself to go and engage him early because no one else was there.
“It was unfortunate for us and maybe for American Pharoah, too.”
If Frosted had not pressed Pharoah, he might well have had more punch left late. But by that same logic, wouldn’t Pharoah have had more left too, and kept finding more if let alone? In hindsight, we can wonder that maybe Pharoah wouldn’t have found as much as usual, since he wasn’t giving Victor Espinoza his usual cruising vibe — something that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert could pick up from the stands. Or was that rather a result of the pressure? Unless Pharoah was challenged early, his vulnerability on the day might never have been exposed.
Anyway, from a tactical perspective, you’d have to think that handing Pharoah an uncontested lead is virtually consigning yourself to a minor award — unless you want to assume that the 3-10 favorite is going to self-implode. By pressing, at least you’re changing the equation from one that’s very much against you, to an uncertain one that could work.
The rejoinder to that is maybe Frosted can’t sustain that kind of prolonged engagement; maybe he just needs to play the hand he’s dealt, come what may, which Rosario would know.
Still, McLaughlin recognized that Frosted ran a strong race in defeat.
“He’s in good shape,” the horseman said on the day after. “He certainly put in a good effort; it just wasn’t exactly the game plan. I was excited at the quarter pole, we were head and head. I thought maybe we were going to get lucky again, but it didn’t work out. He ran a big race.”
And McLaughlin was complimentary of a similar audible called by Lezcano on Belmont Day:
“When Wedding Toast ran (in the Ogden Phipps [G1]), I told (Jose) to lay third. He broke, he (went to the lead), and he kept going and won by five (lengths).”
Now it’s time for your thoughts on Frosted’s trip in the Travers!
Frosted vs. American Pharoah turning for home, cropped from photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography/Arianna Spadoni.