Seems like we were just here, doesn’t it? The Belmont Stakes, the ultimate 12-furlong stumbling block for three-year-olds, will lay down the welcome mat for another horse attempting to do the unthinkable, and then try to yank it from beneath his hooves. Some may think: what better place, than in the epicenter of cynicism and aspersions cast, to witness the assured failure of yet another Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion in search of thoroughbred racing’s ultimate triumvirate.
Like many of the 21 since 1944 that have tried and failed before him, American Pharoah enters with enormous expectations, a short price, media darlingship, and faces a field that shouldn’t be on the same oval with him. The Belmont will be the fourth start in eight weeks for American Pharoah, who would become the 12th ever to win all three Triple Crown races in a five-week span. Pharaoh’s trainer Bob Baffert has had three previous opportunities to escape from New York with the Triple Crown, but Silver Charm, Real Quiet (lost by a nose) and War Emblem failed. He recognizes the impact and the importance of parading a Triple Crown winner to the generally uninformed public and media.
“People in this country are sports fanatics (and) will tune in to see if there’s something on the line or some historic thing. And now with social media, people will know what’s going on. But I think the Thoroughbred industry needs a jump to get people involved. That’s how you get people involved, getting more people in that may be buy and breed horses. If you can’t own a baseball team, football team or basketball team, you own a horse. It’s the same enjoyment,” Baffert said Monday after his horse’s tune-up at Churchill Downs.
A detailed glance shows that any enjoyment for the seven other possible starters and their connections on Saturday is, well, a long shot. Keen Ice has yet to break his maiden. Frammento hasn’t won since October, which was his only win. Tale of the Verve, second at the Preakness, has won just once during his career, and Mubtaahij has only won abroad. Frosted and Materiality had decent excuses for their fourth- and sixth-place finishes at Churchill Downs, but will the two additional furlongs be a help or a hindrance to close the gap on American Pharoah? Madefromlucky is the only horse other than the favorite to have won a race in May, finished fourth behind the Triple Crown contender at the Arkansas Derby, but was more than 10 lengths behind at nine furlongs.
The Belmont Stakes is the only remaining Grade 1 dirt race at one-and-a-half miles in the U.S., and therein lies the problem for horses that are neither bred for the distance, nor train for the distance at any other time. Stamina is vital. Finding a comfortable spot among just eight horses during a race that lasts about two-and-a-half minutes is much less taxing in the early stages of the race than it is at the Kentucky Derby, with its 20 post positions and auxiliary gate. Winning horses that have taken over to win the race in the deep stretch are revered, but the Belmonts decided by daylight have been the most memorable, like Secretariat’s 31-length romp in 1972, Easy Goer’s easy win in 1989 and Afleet Alex’s redemptive race in 2005 after stumbling badly in the Preakness.
There were five consecutive thrillers from 1996 to 2000. Editor’s Note barely edged Skip Away in 1996. Touch Gold’s late surge provided a close victory over Silver Charm in 1997, and Victory Gallop nosed out Triple Crown hopeful Real Quiet in 1998. Lemon Drop Kid upset Charismatic in another close call in 1999 and Sarava’s upset at 70-to-1 odds over Medaglia d’Oro in 2000. The really tight finishes in the past eight years were Rags to Riches’ victory over Curlin in 2007 and Tonalist’s win at the wire last year over Commissioner. Often, the winner had seized command by/or at the top of the stretch, and I expect the same to happen just after 6:30 p.m. in New York.
To deny jockey Victor Espinoza, Baffert and American Pharoah the Triple Crown, something untoward would have to occur, as the other seven “contenders” just don’t seem up to the task at 12 furlongs. Of course, they have said that about most of the 13 that had a chance for the crown since 1978, including Spectacular Bid in 1979, one of the most dominant performers of all time. American Pharoah is the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races this year, and somewhere Steve Coburn is issuing a satisfied smirk. With Baffert in charge, however you know that his horse will be healthy and ready to go on Saturday. “To put in perspective how dominant Baffert’s stable has been since Silver Charm won the ’97 Derby, consider that he has won nearly 20 percent of all Triple Crown races since then (11-of-56) in a sport in which winning 20 percent of the time in any race is a solid figure. He was the only trainer to have three chances at a Triple Crown. Saturday, he will become the only trainer to have four chances to do something no trainer has been able to do once since Laz Barrera got Affirmed to beat Alydar three times in the spring of 1978,” wrote Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News.
American Pharoah seeks his seventh straight win since Sept. 3, 2014, while the other seven horses have combined for just 10 wins in 2015. If the favorite, starting from post position No. 5 is simply not up to the task at Belmont Park, I look for Frosted, Materiality or Mubtaahij as the only rivals with a chance to win at 12 furlongs. If all is completely right with American Pharoah, Risen Star’s Belmont victory in 1988 by 14 3/4 lengths could be in jeopardy. That victory is the largest margin of victory since Secretariat won by 31 lengths in 1973.
At long last, the thoroughbred industry, media, race fans and unwitting general public will celebrate the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. American Pharaoh, “King of the hill, A Number One.”
PP 1 Mubtaahij Wins: maiden, conditional, stakes and UAE Derby (March 28) Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and trainer Mike de Kock
PP 2 Tale of Verve Wins: maiden winner (April 23) Jockey Gary Stevens and trainer Dallas Stewart
PP 3 Madefromlucky Wins: maiden, optional claimer, Peter Pan (May 9) Jockey Javier Castellano and trainer Todd Pletcher
PP 4 Frammento Wins: maiden Jockey Mike Smith and trainer Nick Zito
PP 5 American Pharoah Wins: Preakness, Kentucky Derby, Arkansas Derby, Rebel, FrontRunner and Del Mar Futurity Jockey Victor Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert
PP 6 Frosted, Joel Rosario and Kiaran McLaughlin Wins: maiden and Wood Memorial (April 4) Jockey Joel Rosario and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin
PP 7 Keen Ice Wins: none Jockey Kent Desormeaux and trainer Dale Romans
PP 8 Materiality Wins: maiden, Ismalorada and Florida Derby (March 28) Jockey John Velazquez and trainer Todd Pletcher
Predicted order of finish: American Pharaoh Frosted Mubtaahij Materiality Madefromlucky Tale of Verve Keen Ice Frammento