By Paul Post
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah is a thoroughbred racing hero despite his surprising loss in the Grade 1, $1.6 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 29.
The champion 3-year-old has revived excitement in a sport plagued by declining interest and attendance in recent years.
Pharoah not only made history on track, but off it as well by generating untold millions of dollars worth of memorabilia sales, quite possibly the most ever by any one horse.
“Anything American Pharoah is going fast,” said Toni Cerbo, a gift shop clerk at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. – directly across from the 151-year-old racecourse, America’s oldest sports venue. “He’s the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. I don’t think it will stop selling.”
A huge Triple Crown banner with American Pharoah’s trademark teal and gold colors hangs in the museum’s large front picture window. The museum’s Triple Crown Gallery has a temporary exhibit with photos and text that detail the colt’s rise to racing immortality.
“We’re hoping to get more things after he retires that will help tell the story of his legacy,” spokesman Brien Bouyea said. “He’s the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history. We expect to update the gallery after the season with photos of his victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.”
Roy Weiss of Whitehouse Station, N.J., stopped in the museum gift shop to purchase a Travers Stakes poster the day before the big race, which boasted the richest purse in Saratoga history. Despite Pharoah’s defeat, it’s a keepsake from one of the most unforgettable races Saratoga has ever hosted.
After holding off challenger Frosted most of the way around the “Spa Oval,” Pharoah suffered a stunning upset when 16-to-1 Keen Ice charged down the stretch past him en route to victory. The outcome further solidified Saratoga’s reputation as the “Graveyard of Champions,” as Pharoah joined other racing legends such as Man o’ War (1919), Gallant Fox (1930) and Secretariat (1973) who came to Saratoga as heavy favorites, only to suffer defeat.
Memorabilia flew off local store shelves in the days leading up to the sold-out race, with 50,000 people on hand.
Marianne Barker, owner of Impressions of Saratoga gift shop, said, “American Pharoah has really gotten people excited about horse racing again. We’ve had a lot of first-time customers and people we haven’t seen in a long time.”
She was well prepared for the onslaught of Travers Weekend business with a large inventory of collectibles such as commemorative magazines and pins, mugs and several different designed T-shirts and caps. Framed photos were a particularly hot seller including one display that featured a picture from each of Pharoah’s Triple Crown victories.
Sarah Cahill, of Salem, Mass., bought a close-up photo of American Pharoah’s head and face while racing – a study in determination, drive and desire to win. She also purchased a picture of Secretariat for her sister in Ireland.
The store has pictures of both great horses signed by their respective jockeys, Victor Espinoza and Ron Turcotte.
Horse racing memorabilia has been on the upswing of late, with Lelands leading the charge with big prices for items related to Secretariat.
Early this year, Lelands sold Red Pollard’s Seabiscuit saddle for $104,260. Seabiscuit race-worn horseshoes from the War Admiral match race and Santa Anita Handicap brought $35,311. In July of this year, a 1973 Secretariat race-worn horseshoe topped $36,000. Halter and winner’s blankets have also been big sellers.
Cahill’s husband, John, has been coming to Saratoga since he was 9 and hadn’t seen this much excitement since Secretariat raced – and lost – there after winning the 1973 Triple Crown.
“American Pharoah really rejuvenated the sport,” John Cahill said. “There’s a lot of new interest from young people. It’s just the type of boost racing needed. Hopefully it continues.”
Outside the store, 4-year-old Alice Crapo had her picture taken with a colorful wooden cut-out sign of American Pharoah that made it look like she was his jockey. It was one of the many “Pharoah Frenzy” attractions that gripped Saratoga in the days leading up to the Travers. The Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce and Saratoga Convention and Tourism Bureau got in on the act with a special “Pharoahtoga” promotion.
Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat and Hall of Fame Trainer Bob Baffert were extremely cooperative with fans and made themselves accessible for autograph signings.
The day before the Travers, they let American Pharoah go through a special morning workout so fans could get a glimpse of him. More than 15,000 people showed up for the free event at Saratoga Race Course.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Baffert said. “That’s what (Pharoah) brings with him. He loves to train, he loves to run. That’s why we’re here. Give everybody a chance to see him.”
Joe Deucker of Albany, N.Y., and his 7-year-old son, Jack, proudly displayed 2015 Belmont Stakes programs that Baffert autographed for them while surrounded by fans.
“My son is the next generation of fans,” Joe Deucker said. “He loves horses and the races. I hope we can get (American Pharoah jockey) Victor Espinoza’s autograph, too.”
Travers Day was another opportunity to get prized racing memorabilia. Racetrack employee Kelly McKinley sold more than 2,000 souvenir programs at her booth alone.
“I’ve been working here since 1998 and I’ve never sold anything close to this many,” she said. “A lot of people are buying two programs, one to bet with here today and one to take home.”
Unlike most races, betting slips for the Travers had American Pharoah’s name printed on it. Racing fan Dan Dickinson bet $20 to win.
Before the race, he planned to keep to keep the ticket rather than cash it in. Pharoah went off as such a heavy favorite that Dickinson only would have made $2 anyway. The betting slip with Pharoah’s name on it probably has more value as a collectible.
“It’s the nostalgia of it,” Dickinson said.
Even though Pharoah lost, Dickinson can keep the item as proof for years to come that he was present for one of the biggest upsets in thoroughbred racing history.
But there was no way Vinnie Blond of Clifton Park, N.Y., was going to keep his betting slip. He bet against Pharoah and went to the window with a huge smile, claiming $2,500 after hitting the Pick 4 and Trifecta and putting a winning $8 bet on Keen Ice.
“American Pharoah is an amazing horse, but I’ve been betting against him since the Kentucky Derby,” Blond said. “I bet on Keen Ice in the Belmont Stakes and Haskell.”
Even veteran racing figures such as popular retired jockey Richard “The Mig” Migliore, a current Fox Sports sportscaster, were overwhelmed by Saratoga fandom’s response to American Pharoah. Migliore was there for the free workout the day before the Travers.
“This is unbelievable,” he said. “I feel like a little kid again.”
Migliore said Pharoah has done the same thing for racing that Hank Aaron did for baseball in the early 1970s. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Migliore didn’t follow baseball.
But as Aaron neared and eventually passed Babe Ruth as the game’s all-time home run king, Migliore got hooked and has been a fan ever since.
“It’s my sincerest hope that this is what this horse is doing for racing,” he said. “When you have greatness it captures people’s imaginations. We have an opportunity here to really build on this.”
Unless Zayat decides to retire American Pharoah, racing will be in for another huge weekend, generating even more interest, if Pharoah and Keen Ice renew their rivalry in the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland on Oct. 31. (Recent reports state American Pharoah will continue racing.)
Racing fan Bonnie Fishman of Atlanta credited Baffert and Zayat for bringing Pharoah to Saratoga three weeks after his victory in the Haskell at Monmouth, N.J. “That’s what keeps the sport alive, not breeding a horse and taking him off the track the minute he has success,” she said. “It generates energy in the sport.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.