The thing about Saratoga Race Course is how impossible it is to not feel the weight of history that blankets every crevice of the 152-year-old grande dame.
The reminders of greats that came before are everywhere: in conversations overheard while watching morning works at the Oklahoma Training Track, in images that dot the historic architecture, in the unmatched vibe patrons carry with them through the turnstiles each day of the boutique meet.
Recent days have seen those in and around the historic grounds infected with a fervor that shows no signs of being contained. A Triple Crown winner has arrived at the track that defines legacies seeking to build upon his own, and to say he has been given a hero's welcome is a tepid description of the fanfare.
American Pharoah has already gone beyond special. In becoming the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Triple Crown, the bay colt has lifted his sport and its patrons into can-you-believe-this territory as he continues to be campaigned by owner/breeder Zayat Stables and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.
Still, it's one thing to be an all-time great. It's another to be great at the venue that put special demands on the best there have ever been.
For all of American Pharoah's layers of spectacular, nothing compares to having a champion show up to perform at Thoroughbred racing's version of Mecca. And so, the 146th running of Saturday's Grade I Travers Stakes will go down as an event those in attendance can forever hold over those who weren't as American Pharoah will try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Whirlaway in 1941 to win Saratoga's signature 11/4-mile test.
Assuming nothing goes amiss before the Travers' 5:46 p.m. post time, the race will raise its purse from $1.25 million to $1.6 million as long as American Pharoah starts against the field of nine others that were entered. Given the show he put on for the estimated crowd of 15,000 that turned out just to watch him gallop at the track Friday morning, the son of Pioneerof the Nile could well put the track nicknamed the "Graveyard of Champions" due to its history of unfathomable upsets in its place.
"I was pretty overwhelmed by everybody and the fans. He has a big backing ... it just keeps growing and growing and growing," Baffert told the media at Saratoga on Friday morning after American Pharoah's spirited gallop. "I feel like I'm protecting the president, I'm the Secret Service guy.
"It's great, lot of kids, younger kids will remember this. It's one of those things where this is what you want to see in horse racing. We needed a boost."
The savvy Saratoga crowd knows to savor its time with American Pharoah, especially considering his grandiose presence was anything but a guarantee.
Baffert had seemed openly hesitant about heading to the Travers. His record at Saratoga isn't spectacular: he is 1-for-5 in the Travers and 5-for-31 at the track total since 2010. Then there is the timing of the race, which comes just more than three weeks after American Pharoah's easy-as-he-pleased victory in the Grade I Haskell Invitational on Aug. 2. The last thing Baffert wants is for the most powerful entity in racing to follow in the footsteps of Man o' War, Gallant Fox, Secretariat and Affirmed, all of whom suffered defeats at Saratoga.
The horse has already shipped this year from California to Arkansas and back twice, to Kentucky then Maryland and back, from Kentucky to New York and back, from Kentucky to California then to California to New Jersey and back.
Yet he keeps holding his flesh with not an ounce of extra weight hiding his still-growing muscles. His two works since the Haskell, including his 7-furlong move in 1:23.20 at Del Mar on Aug. 23, prove that the horse was too right to not run.
"That's what makes him such a great horse, is he has been able to put together a big performance and put it together with another big performance," said Baffert, whose only career win in the Travers came with Point Given in 2001. "He brings it in a short period, and on short rest he can come back and keep doing it.
"He had to really show us he was still on his game, the energy level. When you are flying back and forth like that ... you don't see horses do that, you have to be really special for him to do that."
Baffert has deemed Saturday's Travers a "mini Kentucky Derby" as a nod to the competition he is set to face from the likes of Grade I winner Frosted, Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red and graded stakes winner Upstart.
Having won the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes over Frosted at Saratoga on Aug. 1, Texas Red may be the biggest threat to play the role of spoiler as American Pharoah goes for his ninth consecutive victory in 10 starts. The two haven't met since Texas Red finished third behind American Pharoah in the Grade I FrontRunner Stakes last September. Their class reunion will be something to behold.
"I have to say even if (American Pharoah) wasn't here and maybe we were coming into the race as one of the co-favorites, it's not pressure. It's more excitement," said Keith Desormeaux, trainer of Texas Red. "Pressure is like trying to make a $100 bet and you only have $5 in your pocket. That's pressure. We've got a $17,000 horse with $1.6 million in his pocket. There's no pressure on us. It's all gratitude."