The storybook ride of the 2015 Thoroughbred racing season is going to go on for at least one more chapter.
After days of discussion regarding the future of American Pharoah in the wake of his runner-up finish in the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga last Saturday, owner/breeder Ahmed Zayat announced Thursday that the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years will remain in training with the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland on Oct. 31 still the target for his career swan song.
"I have decided to continue to race American Pharoah! The champ deserves another chance," Zayat tweeted.
The specter of whether American Pharoah would be retired was strongly raised when he ran second to Keen Ice in the Travers, his first loss since dropping his career debut at Del Mar last August.
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In the immediate aftermath of the race, Zayat emotionally stated that his "gut feeling" was to retire the son of Pioneerof the Nile. However, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said the colt came out of the effort in good order and added he would be game to keep the bay colt in training. Now he can go out on a winning note before retiring to Ashford Stud at the end of his 3-year-old season.
"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," Zayat said in a statement. "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."
Whether or not American Pharoah has one more prep race before the Breeders' Cup has yet to be finalized. What is likely is that he will be returning to Kentucky in the coming weeks to train at Churchill Downs.
Churchill Downs does offer a possible prep race for American Pharoah in the form of the 11⁄8-mile, $175,000 Lukas Classic on Sept. 26. Should Zayat and Baffert decide to go in that spot, Churchill Downs officials confirmed the purse would increase significantly.
"We've had discussions with the connections and ... obviously (the Lukas Classic) would need a significant purse increase," said Darren Rogers, senior director of communications for Churchill Downs. "We've told them we would love to do that. But it ultimately depends on the horse and if they decide to have a prep race or not."
Even though the Travers loss ended American Pharoah's eight-race win streak — highlighted by his historic sweep of the American classics — it was hardly a disgraceful effort from the seven-time Grade I winner.
Breaking well as he always does, American Pharoah seemed in command as he shot to the front of the 10-horse field, but he had Frosted and jockey Jose Lezcano at his hip pressing him through increasingly taxing fractions down the backstretch.
Frosted came eyeball to eyeball with the Triple Crown hero around the final turn, but American Pharoah fought back along the rail to put him away in midstretch only to be caught by Donegal Racing's Keen Ice, who was surging on the far outside to get by the champion by three-quarters of a length.
"It almost ended well, almost pulled it off," Baffert said the morning after the Travers. "He tried so hard under the circumstances and he still was trying to win. He could have given it up ... but he just dug and dug and dug.
"Sometimes you feel like 'Well, he's invincible' but they all can get beat."
If American Pharoah does not have another race between the Travers and the Breeders' Cup, he would go into the year-end test off a nine-week layoff.
The break might be just what he needs to refuel his brilliant form. Beginning with his season debut in the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 14, American Pharoah has made seven starts, crisscrossing the country several times.
"It's tough, but there is no horse who has ever done it like he's done it," Baffert said of the colt's ability to ship.
Among the likely contenders American Pharoah would face in the Breeders' Cup Classic are his Travers conqueror Keen Ice, who is back at Churchill Downs and likely to train up to the race, the champion mare Beholder, who defeated males by 81/4 lengths in the Grade I Pacific Classic on Aug. 22, and multiple Grade I winner Honor Code.
"I am very confident that this is the right decision for American Pharoah," Zayat said. "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."