-- SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- In a few days' time, memories of some of the most glorious days in the fabled 147-year history of Saratoga Race Course will be resurrected. It will be like 1978 again.
Perhaps even 1941.
For on Saturday, Zayat Stables' American Pharoah, the captivating first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, will race in the $1.6 million Travers Stakes at the famed proving ground for equine champions known simply as the Spa.
He will be the first Triple Crown winner to race there since Affirmed finished first in the 1978 Travers but was disqualified and placed behind his persistent shadow, Alydar. He will carry with him the rare brand of electricity Secretariat -- the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years when he accomplished the feat -- brought to Saratoga when he stunningly lost in the 1973 Whitney Stakes.
He will try to become the first Triple Crown winner to claim victory in the Travers since Whirlaway in 1941.
Historical implications aside, American Pharoah will face a formidable array of key rivals in the mile-and-a-quarter Midsummer Derby, all of whom are coming off sharp efforts. Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red was last seen winning the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, giving him the added benefit of a race over the track. Frosted was second behind American Pharoah in the Belmont Stakes and second to Texas Red in the Jim Dandy. Keen Ice was third in the Belmont and then was gaining ground late on an admittedly geared-down American Pharoah in the shorter, mile-and-an-eighth Haskell.
It promises to be the kind of race people will remember for decades, because it will not be a staged, side-show exhibition. It will be a fascinating horse race, filled with some elements of doubt over the outcome to heighten the excitement.
It's a race American Pharoah figures to win.
But he may not.
He might not like the feel of the racetrack. He might endure a horrible trip. Fatigue from his previous starts in six races this year could finally set in. Someone else might pop up and run the race of his life and beat him to the finish line.
It happened to Secretariat at Saratoga, and it could indeed happen to American Pharoah. And if it does, and American Pharoah runs into a modern day Onion, there's really nothing wrong with that.
It's just horse racing in its truest essence, and after the Travers, whether American Pharoah wins, loses or draws, there should be no finger-pointing or I-told-you-so's because the right decision was made.
American Pharoah belongs in the Travers.
You see, there's a different set of rules for Triple Crown winners. They have already won the single race -- or three of them -- that truly matters.
Nothing American Pharoah does from now until he heads to the breeding shed will ever top what he accomplished on June 6, 2015, at the Belmont Stakes when he took the impossible by the throat and made it possible.
The widespread consensus before that day was 3-year-olds can no longer win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in a five-week period. Thirty-six years filled with near-misses were offered as proof.
The mood was the same in 1973 when Secretariat ended a 25-year drought, which largely explains why he has been so beloved over the course of four decades.
If American Pharoah were to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, it would be an immense accomplishment. Yet it would also only underscore the level of greatness he achieved in the Belmont Stakes and will never be tarnished. Regardless of Saturday's outcome, American Pharoah will be the 3-year-old champion male, the Horse of the Year and a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Nothing can change any of that or the love fans will have for him.
That's why it created a bad taste to even think trainer Bob Baffert would keep a healthy and raring-to-run American Pharoah in the barn on Saturday and opt for the easy road by running American Pharoah in the Pennsylvania Derby at obscure Parx Racing. Triple Crown champions do not shirk from a challenge, it's that simple.
With Triple Crown champions, it's the experience that matters, and on Saturday a sold-out crowd of 50,000 will not only get to see a Triple Crown winner in a regal setting, but they will also get to see him tested, adding to the euphoria of the moment.
If he loses, well, Secretariat lost twice after the Belmont Stakes and it did not diminish the passion fans felt for him. Nor will defeat erase the loyalty of American Pharoah's legion of fans.
When you consider what will happen at Saratoga this week -- with the frenzy that started when he arrived in town on Wednesday afternoon, it will intensify when thousands watch him gallop over the track on Friday morning, then boil over when the starting gates spring open for the Travers at 5:46 p.m. Saturday -- it's laughable to think a moment like that should not happen when the horse is in superb shape and ready for an A-plus effort.
If someone wants to say the Travers is a mistake, then they should not lament the failure to get Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra in the same starting gate during 2009 and 2010. Nor should they decry the way beaten Kentucky Derby runners avoid the Preakness like poison ivy or how Grade 1 stakes can attract only a handful of starters. That would be hypocritical.
To create the great and unforgettable races the sport so desperately needs, there has to be the kind of challenge inherent in the historic Travers, and that's why Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat and American Pharoah himself should be saluted for their sportsmanship -- in victory or defeat.
Especially when you consider the fragile nature of a Thoroughbred. One bad step during a workout and the 12th Triple Crown champion may never race again. So why get snarky about a chance to see him once again?
"The best part of American Pharoah running in the Travers is that the buzz is back at the racetrack," said Martin Panza, the New York Racing Association's senior vice president of racing operations. "It's like the old days when tracks were packed.
"He's the now horse, the Triple Crown winner. One of the greatest horses to come along in a long time and it's very difficult in modern time for a horse to sway the public and get the public to come to the race and follow him. Zenyatta had a following, but even with her you'd get 20 or 25,000. This horse has the ability to sell out 50,000 here. An attendance record was set at the Haskell. This horse has the ability to draw the average fan to the racetrack and those types of animals do not come along that often. He's America's Horse.
"Mr. Zayat has done everything possible to help the sport by continuing to run him. The Triple Crown, the Haskell, the Travers. I believe he has the sport in mind and how he can help the sport and that's pretty cool."
And so on Saturday, horse racing will have a day that promises to be unforgettable, which should serve as an example to horsemen who far too often seek the path of least resistance.
People want to see stars in roles deserving of them, like they did last Saturday when Beholder crushed males in the Pacific Classic, and like what they will most certainly get when American Pharoah races in the Travers.
So don't quibble. Just enjoy it.