After the Triple Crown, I had a well-meaning but overzealous fan try to tell me it was incorrect to say American Pharoah had lost a race. According to her logic, he was "basically undefeated," ergo, he was undefeated. That wasn't true in June, it remains untrue now, and that is OK.
On Saturday, American Pharoah was upset in the Travers Stakes. That's horse racing for you. It happens. The knee-jerk reaction is to ponder what this means for American Pharoah's legacy, but unfortunately, for a world that wants answers yesterday, it is unsatisfactory but true to say that there is no answer.
Furthermore, there would be no answer if American Pharoah had won the Travers. It is impossible to determine a legacy when the only creature who decides it is still actively pursuing what made him famous in the first place.
The sky didn't fall on Saturday. Rather, Keen Ice won the Travers because on that particular day, on that particular track, in that particular moment, he ran the better race. I highly doubt anyone actually believes that overall he is a better horse. History doesn't think Onion is better than Secretariat, and it is unlikely that time will show Keen Ice over American Pharoah.
American Pharoah lost his first career start and thus was never going to retire undefeated, and it is widely believed he is the best of his generation. Nothing that happened in the Travers changes either of those things. It's not the horse's fault that some people conned themselves into believing he was invincible.
One of the best things the Triple Crown champion has done is bring in mainstream fans who were attracted to his pure athleticism, but what takes more time to learn and accept is that any horse can lose, and most of them do.
Losing gamely doesn't bother me because I would rather see a healthy, sound horse run and taste defeat than sit in a barn for months on end waiting for a soft spot in which to compete.
These are racehorses, after all. Their destiny is in their very description. Not everyone agrees, and that is OK. For some, being undefeated while rarely challenged is more valuable than being challenged and answering the call more often than not. There is no wrong answer, just personal preference.
Consider the race just before the Travers, the Grade 1 Sword Dancer, which was won by European raider Flintshire. Consistent as they come, in the last calendar year, 5-year-old Flintshire has run in England, France, America, Hong Kong and Dubai in some of the toughest and most prestigious races in the world and has not been worse than third. His name is not etched in the history books like American Pharoah's, but he is admired for the fact that he runs and runs well wherever he is sent. Superstars like American Pharoah bring people in, and horses like Flintshire with long, respected careers get some of them to stay.
The trick is, with horse racing, the game can stop at any time. Unlike football or baseball, there is no schedule these athletes are required to stick to. Immediately after the Travers, American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, said his gut was telling him to retire the horse even though all along the goal has been running in the Breeders' Cup Classic. The next day, trainer Bob Baffert said the horse was in good shape and would ship back to California with his future undetermined.
Zayat is an emotional man, and it is understandable that he was in a daze after watching his champion lose for the first time in more than a year, especially since he is the one who wanted American Pharoah in the race to begin with. I do hope that once emotions have had time to settle, and assuming American Pharoah remains healthy, that talk of retirement is tabled.
Win or lose the Travers, American Pharoah was going to run only once or twice more before heading to the breeding shed anyway. Retiring the horse just because he lost fair and square veers toward the "taking my ball and going home" mentality of childhood. Untold millions are wrapped up in American Pharoah, but if that was Zayat's main concern, the horse would have been retired the second he won the Triple Crown.
American Pharoah's place in history was secure the moment he crossed the wire in front at the Belmont -- now it is just a matter of specifics. Breeders are not going to turn away in disgust because he fought off Frosted but got caught by Keen Ice in the Travers. However, it would be unhealthy for the overall well being of the sport if racing past June of a sound colt's 3-year-old year was deemed pointless. American Pharoah is the best of his generation, but it would be a shame if he never competed against his elders.
Let American Pharoah have his moment in the Classic. Redemption always makes for a good storyline, and hopefully the horse who has done so much for racing will be given the chance to go out on top. He owes us nothing, but perhaps he is owed a chance to write a final chapter that is better than what happened on Saturday.