The grandstand of the Saratoga Race Course—perhaps the oldest sporting venue in the United States—looms almost immediately on your left as you exit I-87 at Union Avenue in the Spa City, 185 miles north of Manhattan. Across the street is the Oklahoma Training Track, another full-size circuit. Scattered in both directions are barns and stables and all of the other infrastructure needed to run a world-class thoroughbred racing facility.
Continue west on Union towards downtown, and a sign and statue welcome you to the city. The statue is of Native Dancer, who won 21 of 22 career races (including six at Saratoga), falling only in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, by a head. One of those six Saratoga wins was the '53 Travers Stakes, named for one of the founders of Saratoga Race Course and, after the Triple Crown races, is one the most prestigious races in America.
It was the Travers that brought me to the city of about 27,000 in the Adirondack foothills on a sunny August weekend. More specifically, I was there because American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, was set to race in the so-called Midsummer Derby. Tickets were sold out before Pharoah's team even entered him in the race. The city and New York Racing Association mounted a #Pharoahtoga campaign, including a hospitality package and a 28-percent increase in the Travers purse in order to convince the horse's handlers to bring him east from trainer Bob Baffert's base in Del Mar, California.
On the Sunday preceding Travers week, owner Ahmed Zayat confirmed that the horse's farewell tour would indeed roll through Saratoga after a win in his first post-Belmont race, the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.
Pharoah arrived in Saratoga on Wednesday afternoon and an estimated 15,000 people showed up at the track early on Friday morning just to watch him gallop for one lap in a training session.
At 3 p.m. on Friday, assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes walked Pharoah for about half-an-hour up and down in front of his stable, with barricades manned by security guards at either end to keep the public at bay. A couple dozen fans snapped hundreds of photos of the bay colt, and almost every time Pharoah reached the end of the row, he paused in the shadows of giant maple trees and posed for his admirers—women in dresses and heels, amateur photographers, autograph seekers, a group of West Point alumni and just plain fans. A camera crew from NBC was there, too, shooting B-roll footage.
"What a horse," someone cooed as Pharoah approached.
"Beautiful horse," another fan echoed.
American Pharoah resisted when it was time to head back to his stall for the evening. After much cajoling from Barnes, he finally did, leaving his fans to stare into the lengthening shadows to get a glimpse of the horse as he ate from a basket of hay hung outside his stall.
"Isn't it wonderful that such a little horse can get people so excited?" a track employee said excitedly in a thick New York accent as she directed me to the press office. But the best was yet to come, with 50,000 tickets sold for the Travers on Saturday.
Think about the long goodbyes of sporting stars like Wayne Gretzky or, more recently, Derek Jeter. Both announced their retirements early enough to give their fans plenty of time to see them before their great careers ended, and they regularly played to adoring crowds both at home and on the road as the end neared.
The end could come at any moment for American Pharoah. He is much more valuable as a stud than as a racer and, with the Triple Crown secure, his value will not increase with more victories. After the 37-year wait since Affirmed, Pharoah will likely race just three times after the Belmont Stakes—at the Haskell, the Travers and the Breeders' Cup Classic at the end of October—or maybe fewer.
And with that abbreviated retirement tour, fans can't get enough of American Pharoah, who could be the last Triple Crown winner in who knows how long—one year? 10? 50? At Saratoga, they were partying like it might never happen again.
John Grady, who teaches sports marketing at Saratoga Springs High School, showed up at the track on Saturday dressed in a full pharaoh Halloween costume, in American Pharoah's blue and yellow Zayat Stables color scheme.
"I must have stopped for 100 photos today," he beamed. "There's such a positive mood here. I think holding the attendance to 50,000 was a really good idea—you can get around, actually get a drink."
Just then, another fan yelled out, "Hey, pharaoh!" and he was off to pose for another photo.
Grady was right: the track was packed, but you could still maneuver around, and the lines for concessions and at the betting windows weren't absurdly long. Saratoga Race Course officials might have been able to sell another 50,000 tickets, but it would have been impossible to navigate the 152-year-old track. As it was, traffic was backed up nearly to the interstate before 7 a.m.
The limit also made room for some extracurricular events between the races. At the "Top of the Stretch" picnic area, I found a group of fraternity brothers from Clarkson University in Potsdam, another 150 miles upstate. The Travers party was a reason to relive their frat days, though, and they had a beer pong table set up maybe 20 feet from the track's outside rail.
In university, most of them lived together, but now they were scattered throughout New York state and beyond for work. American Pharoah had literally brought them all back together.
Not far away, hard against the rail, Saratogians Jill Pierce and Ken Voland and their parties had staked out prime locations to watch American Pharoah's stretch run. Pierce had arrived at the track at 10 p.m. on Friday night to secure a spot in line and slept curled under a blanket on Union Avenue. When the gates opened at 7 a.m. on Saturday, there was a literal sprint to the best spots.
"I thought I had a table," Pierce said, referring to one of the track's coveted picnic tables, which are taken on a first-come, first-served basis. "I thought I had one, and then I didn't. It was a zoo," she smiled, shaking her head.
"We want to see Pharoah win," Voland offered. "It's history—it's like seeing Babe Ruth call his home run. If he wins here and the Breeders' Cup, he might be the best horse ever!"
"Best of our lifetime, anyway," Pierce replied.
Meanwhile, American Pharoah rested and waited in his stall across the track from the boisterous grandstand, where fans already crowded the rail for the day's first race, six hours before the Travers.
As post time neared, patrons (as Saratoga Race Course, like Augusta National, refers to its fans) lined Pharoah's route from his stable to the paddock to the track—at first two- or three-deep, then 10 or maybe more.
The horse was led by a police escort towards the paddock, where he would be saddled. People clambered up the barricades lining the route holding phones and cameras aloft, hoping to snap his photo or maybe even see him with their own eyes.
"I told you the wait would be worth it," said a man standing on the sidewalk outside the track and peering through the fence.
"It was," the woman beside him agreed.
American Pharoah and his team kept up a steady pace. Fans shouted and pushed and waved, straining just to be near him. It was like being inside a presidential motorcade…only American Pharoah had higher approval ratings.
And then it was time for the race.
I found a spot perched high above the finish line, 30 or 40 feet from where Baffert was watching the race in a private box. The starting gate opened and American Pharoah shot to an early lead. If you have been near a television or a computer in the last two days, you likely know what happened next: Frosted ran with him down the backstretch and through the final turn before Pharoah started to pull away, then tired and was run down by Keen Ice at the wire.
The Graveyard of Champions claimed another victim: Man O'War, Gallant Fox, Secretariat and now, American Pharoah all lost at Saratoga. All those previous horses, it should be noted, are remembered as the great champions they were, not for the footnote loss at Saratoga. It should be the same for American Pharoah.
"Did you see the crowd?" asked Dan Jenkins, who drove from Ashland, Massachusetts to see American Pharoah and watched the race from in front of the grandstand, midway down the homestretch. "It looked like everyone just lost their best friend."
The crowd was indeed deflated, shocked into near-silence with a smattering of polite applause. Just an hour after Keen Ice crossed the line, as the sun dipped low behind gathering clouds, the track was nearly deserted.
In downtown Saratoga Springs, though, the party continued long into the night. Every bar and restaurant had live music, it seemed, and the mood was light, despite the disappointment of Pharoah's loss. Everyone at Saratoga that day had their "I was there when…" moment. One day they could tell their grandchildren, "I was there when American Pharoah finally lost."