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American Pharoah will race Breeders' Cup, and owner should be praised

It was understandable that Ahmed Zayat's thoughts turned swiftly toward retiring American Pharoah after the colt's loss Saturday in the Travers Stakes.

Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert have spoken for months of wanting to protect American Pharoah's legacy as the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. And there's the more practical matter of protecting his value in the breeding shed, where he'll work for Coolmore Ashford Stud.

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No one would have lambasted Zayat for taking the conservative route.

But we should praise him for announcing Thursday to ESPN and the Daily Racing Form that his brilliant horse will remain in training with an eye on the Oct. 31 Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.

The morning after American Pharoah raced to glory at Belmont Park, Zayat said he felt a responsibility to racing fans to showcase the hero they had coveted for decades. He has made good on that promise.

The colt likely never would have run in the Travers if Zayat did not feel some responsibility to tradition. (The purse, raised to $1.6 million to lure American Pharoah, didn't hurt.) Baffert never sounded thrilled about the idea. Of the many tracks he has dominated in his Hall of Fame career, Saratoga isn't one of them. But it's a cherished place for horse racing purists. And thousands packed the stands to watch American Pharoah work out in preparation for the Travers.

In the race itself, he showed his champion's will, if not the effortless speed that characterized his best performances. Jockey Victor Espinoza said he knew quickly American Pharoah did not show up with his usual oomph. But he fought off an extended challenge from Belmont runner-up Frosted, who pressed him nearly against the rail before falling back. This was the kind of grit American Pharoah showed in winning the Kentucky Derby and surely, the crowd expected him to hold on. But there came the dogged Keen Ice to pass him at the end.

It happens to the best of them. Secretariat also lost his second race after winning the Triple Crown, also at Saratoga. American Pharoah was gallant in defeat. But if he had retired on that note, skeptics would have dismissed his claim as one of the greatest American thoroughbreds.

Now, he'll have a chance to answer them in the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic.

There, American Pharoah will face older horses, such as 2014 Belmont champion Tonalist and the great mare, Beholder, for the first time. He'll have a shot at revenge on Keen Ice, whom he beat while easing to the line in the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational.

With a Triple Crown winner's legacy on the line, the Breeders' Cup will feel like the grand culmination it's supposed to be for the sport. We already know American Pharoah can draw an audience — viewership for NBC's broadcast of the Travers more than doubled from 2014 and was the highest in 20 years.

American Pharoah's Triple Crown ranks right with Serena Wiliams' Grand Slam quest and Jordan Spieth's golfing ascent among the best stories of this sporting year.

Now, thanks to Zayat (and Baffert, who sounded like he wanted to keep going as early as Sunday), the tale seems headed for an appropriately dramatic conclusion.

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