American Pharoah to Breeders' Cup: Zayat makes the decision racing fans everywhere wanted to hear
After several days of suspense regarding American Pharoah's future, owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat caused the racing world to rejoice Thursday, confirming that the Triple Crown champion will indeed aim for the October 31 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) at Keeneland:
Although it's still possible for American Pharoah to get in another prep race, chances are that Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will take the opportunity to freshen him up off that grueling loss in the Travers (G1), and head straight to Lexington off the break.
American Pharoah fired off a similar two-month holiday this summer, when returning from his Belmont (G1) tour de force to romp in the Haskell Invitational (G1). Obviously, the Breeders' Cup presents a far stiffer task than his Jersey Shore stroll. But at this point, coming off a slightly subpar effort -- by Pharoah's standards -- and a series of ships, I like the idea of ensuring a "full tank" for his career finale.
Zayat expanded on his decision in a statement given to Bob Ehalt for ESPN.com and Jay Privman of Daily Racing Form:
I have discussed all aspects of American Pharoah's race last Saturday in the Travers -- and his condition since the race -- with our whole team, and have decided American Pharoah deserves another chance, so we are pointing to the Breeders' Cup Classic.
I am very confident in my decision. Not a moment has gone by since the race on Saturday when I have not thought about this decision. My initial concern right after the race was about American Pharoah's condition, because he did not run his 'A' race. He has come out of the race in great shape. And after examining all the evidence and talking it over with our team -- Bob Baffert, my son Justin, Jimmy Barnes, and Victor Espinoza -- I believe there were a combination of factors that prevented American Pharoah from running his absolute best on Saturday. I have every confidence that he can run to his best again, and he deserves the chance to do so.
I am very confident that this is the right decision for American Pharoah. He loves to race. He has provided my family, racing fans and general sports fans with great thrills this year. He won the Triple Crown earlier this year, and he deserves the chance to be in the sport's premier year-end event.
This was welcome news, considering how inclined Zayat was to retiring the colt over the weekend. Although his initial reaction was clearly driven by emotion, I was still concerned that a constellation of factors might make him stick to it. I honestly didn't know which way the decision was going to go, and as a result, I was bracing for a farewell.
The one thing that gave me hope -- slender as it was -- was Zayat's Wednesday tweet:
To have been a fly on the wall in that meeting! Was Baffert employing every tool of persuasion at hand, outlining the reasons why a Breeders' Cup bid was not only sensible, but perfectly winnable for a fresh Pharoah?
If so, that smacks of a role reversal from the Travers. In the lead-up to the "Midsummer Derby," Zayat sounded much more bullish about a Saratoga -- er, "Pharoahtoga" -- venture than his trainer. Even after Pharoah's final work on August 23, when the initial soundings seemed to be positive but a final decision wasn't expected until the next day, Zayat made the announcement, and NYRA issued a rather detailed release nearly at the same time. Baffert eventually gave the green light, but it was clear who was more enthusiastic about it.
Contrast what's happened since American Pharoah was upset: Zayat understandably took it hard, and feared that his pride and joy was going off the boil. If his championship form were deteriorating, why subject him to another loss on the big stage? Why not just call time on a career that had made history as American racing's 12th Triple Crown winner?
Baffert didn't seem to agree with that line of reasoning, judging by his post-Travers comments. And he told Privman Tuesday that Pharoah was still possible for a Breeders' Cup prep en route to the Classic.
Zayat has apparently taken Baffert's view to heart. Aside from being a terrific development for fans and the Breeders' Cup, it could also help to establish Pharoah's true merit in the scale of history. Should he defeat an all-star cast of older horses including Honor Code and Beholder, he would answer the charge that he's just beaten up on an average group of sophomores.
That's not to minimize the historic accomplishment of sweeping the Triple Crown, but it is to recognize that's at least in part dependent upon the caliber of the opposition. Some Triple Crown winners are simply better than others. We won't really know where Pharoah stands until he faces older horses. Ideally that test would continue for another year. Of course, he'll be enjoying his stud career at Ashford in 2016, so this Breeders' Cup will be our only -- and his only -- chance.
Much can still transpire over the next couple of months to derail this prospect, whether injury, illness, or just a lack of Pharoah's usual verve. But at least for now, the dream lives on.
Breeders' Cup President and CEO Craig Fravel commented Thursday on what this decision means for the championships:
While it is not our practice to comment on individual horses contemplating the Breeders’ Cup as a year-end target, we want to acknowledge the Zayat family on their decision to keep American Pharoah in training and look forward to his continued engagement with the fans who have so genuinely connected with the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. When John Gaines conceived of the Breeders’ Cup, he intended that it be an attraction to and showcase for great champions that might otherwise retire from the spotlight. The 2015 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland is shaping up in many ways to be a historic and watershed event and we want to make clear our deep appreciation for all of the horses and their connections who plan to join us for a celebration of racing’s champions from around the world.