08/30/2015 11:30AM

Zayats search for answers following American Pharoah's Travers loss

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Barbara D. Livingston
American Pharoah and trainer Bob Baffert stand together Sunday morning, a day after American Pharoah finished second in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

A long walk back to the hotel followed by a ride to the airport and a cross-country flight to San Diego gave Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah, plenty of time to reassess the gut reaction he had Saturday immediately following the Travers Stakes, when he raised the possibility of retiring the Triple Crown winner, but when the plane touched down, he still was leaning the same direction.

“I’d say it’s 60-40,” Zayat said, though he added he wants to discuss the matter with trainer Bob Baffert and assistant Jimmy Barnes after they and American Pharoah all returned from Saratoga.

If he does stay in training, American Pharoah can only race through the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 31 at Keeneland. After that, Coolmore takes possession, and American Pharoah heads to stud in Kentucky.

Zayat said if American Pharoah were pointed toward the BC Classic and if he were to have a prep, he’d prefer to do it at Churchill Downs, which he said is among the tracks that have offered to card a race for American Pharoah in advance of the Breeders’ Cup.

“If he runs again, I’d rather run at Churchill Downs,” Zayat said. “I don’t think he likes Santa Anita. He could run [at Churchill], then go to Keeneland.”

On Saturday night, Zayat debriefed jockey Victor Espinoza, who did not offer an opinion on American Pharoah’s future but did go into detail about the Travers, and there were aspects of Espinoza’s summary Zayat said concerned him.

Specifically, Espinoza said American Phaorah washed out going to the gate before the race, which is not normal. Espinoza said American Pharoah wasn’t dragging him the initial part of the race, unlike his aggressive behavior in his prior start, the Haskell. Espinoza said when the field turned into the stretch, American Phaorah “didn’t have his same kick.”

“He gave me a little, but I could see the wire was too far away,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza said when the race was over, American Pharoah did not gallop out with the same enthusiasm as prior races.

“Usually, I can’t pull him up,” Espinoza said.

So what did it all mean? Zayat went through a litany of possibilities, including whether “I pushed the envelope too much” with American Pharoah’s schedule.

Zayat was eager to run in the Travers from the time American Pharoah won the Haskell. Baffert preferred a wait-and-see approach. After American Pharoah’s first work at Del Mar following the Haskell – two weeks after the Haskell and two weeks prior to the Travers – Zayat thought the horse had gone too slowly, and according to Zayat, he told Baffert he didn’t want to run in the Travers. Baffert, Zayat said, talked him down from the ledge.

After American Pharoah had his second workout in advance of the Travers – a brilliant seven-furlong move six days before the race – they decided to go.

American Pharoah lost the Travers by only three-quarters of a length, following a punishing second half-mile in 46.78 seconds while pressured by Frosted. He eventually won that battle but lost the race to Keen Ice. A few little things can easily add up to three-quarters of a length, and Zayat pondered how much – if at all – several things might have contributed to the loss.

Did Zayat, as he wondered, push the envelope? Was the long trip for American Pharoah from California, which included a stopover in Lexington, Ky., to pick up Funny Cide, a factor? What about the strong gallop American Pharoah had Friday morning, when energized by a large, enthusiastic crowd? Was that too much the day before the race? Did any of it matter? Did all of it matter?

Justin Zayat, Ahmed’s oldest son and the stable’s racing manager, thought American Pharoah, feeding off the crowd energy Friday, might have done too much that day. But he added American Phaorah was “second best” in the Travers.

“Keen Ice has been chasing us the last couple of times, and he got us today,” Justin Zayat said. “You have to be a big boy about it. You just can’t take the glory when you win.”

The Travers was the 11th race on a 13-race card. By the time the Zayats were done with their media requests, it still was not sundown. As observant Jews, they will not take motorized transportation or use electronic equipment from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. So, just before the last race was to be run, they walked through the streets of Saratoga from the track back to their hotel, retracing the path they took to the track earlier in the day.

On the way out of the track, several well-wishers came up and thanked the Zayats for bringing American Phaorah to the Travers. Several cars slowed, their occupants shouting thanks or beeping horns during their 20-minute walk.

“I feel like I let the fans down,” Zayat said to his family as they walked.

Once sundown came, the Zayats – Ahmed and his wife, Joanne, their four children, and their son-in-law – hopped into a van with Espinoza and headed to the airport in Albany for their flight home.

They knew their direction – west to San Diego. The path with American Pharoah was less certain.