Why the Travers was a race American Pharoah didn't have to lose

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

August 31st, 2015

American Pharoah's upset loss in Saturday's Travers (G1) has, as you would expect, resulted in a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking among fans and pundits, but primarily from the connections of the horse themselves.

We can all go over numerous factors with a fine-tooth comb: the effects of travel and general fatigue, pace, in-race tactics from the opposition, and so on. But let's get to the essence of why the Travers was a race American Pharoah didn't have to lose.

For weeks the conventional wisdom was that, of course, the Travers was the perfect race for American Pharoah to run in. By any historical measure, it's the most important race in the country for three-year-olds outside of the Triple Crown. It's run at the country's oldest and most popular venue. And winning it is worth a lot of dough.

Golf and tennis each have their four "grand slam" or "major" events, and if Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. has anything at all comparable it would be the Triple Crown plus the Travers for the three-year-old class. At least that's what a lot of people would argue.

That analogy can only be taken so far, though. Unlike the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1), and Belmont (G1), the Travers has never been, nor will it ever be, recognized as a "classic." It's importance and prestige can not be denied, but it simply doesn't rise to the level of the other three.

If the Travers' relative prestige among the four races can be compared, say, to the Australian Open in tennis and the PGA Championship in golf, the analogy is still bit of a stretch. Those who triumph in the two tournaments are still considered winners of a grand slam event or major, but a horse doesn't become a classic winner by taking the Travers alone.

There are many reasons and extenuating circumstances for this, but American Pharoah was only the fourth of the 12 Triple Crown winners to contest the Travers. Take that for what it's worth.

From a pure sporting rather than economic (or otherwise) perspective, the importance of winning the Travers rises in direct proportion to how it affects the race for the three-year-old championship. If you've won one classic or none, a victory can be extremely useful. If you've won two classics, chances are you probably don't need it but a win can be the final nail in the coffin of your opposition. But if you're American Pharoah...

Maxim #1: If you're a Triple Crown winner, the Travers needs you more than you will ever need it.

By sweeping the Triple Crown, and in such brilliant fashion, American Pharoah assured himself the three-year-old title. Once you've achieved that rare accomplishment, what else is there to prove in the company of your peers?

If it seems I'm only picking on the Travers, the above maxim can be applied to all post-Triple Crown events restricted to three-year-olds. By continuing to stay in the three-year-old ranks in the Haskell Invitational (G1) and Travers, American Pharoah was practicing the equivalent of punching down.

When you're the undisputed king of the hill and top of the heap, it's time to start punching up. The people, or in this case horses, on the receiving end of you punching down are not going to continue taking those punches without a fight. They will punch back, and they did on Saturday.

American Pharoah wasn't knocked out, metaphorically speaking, in the Travers. He did receive a good blow, though, and it was one he needn't have been asked to potentially take.

In the grand scheme of things, American Pharoah losing the Travers was nothing serious. He performed marvelously in the face of a lot of adversity and didn't miss by much.

On a more macro level, there will now always be a chapter in the American Pharoah story about the day he lost when punching down. I do think it would have looked and felt a lot different for American Pharoah and his fan base if he happened to lose while practicing the equivalent of punching up.

A victory in the Travers would have had a marginal effect on American Pharoah's legacy. Thus it was a race he didn't have to lose.

(Photo: Lauren King/Adam Coglianese Photography)