LOUISVILLE — Sports offers few fan bases as fervent and biting as those in New York. Earn their favor, and you're hailed like the Second Coming. Draw their ire, and the taunts come at you like cannonballs on fire.
Jerry Crawford's dream scenario for Saturday evening at Belmont Park is to be on the receiving end of the latter. It's not that the jovial president of Donegal Racing is some kind of glutton for instigating drama. He just wants to keep history honest.
"The thought of being booed by 100,000 New Yorkers inspires me," Crawford laughed.
Crawford is among those taken with American Pharoah, freely calling the champion colt a "spectacular horse." But if the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes hero is to be called the 12th Triple Crown winner after Saturday's 147th Belmont Stakes, Crawford wants Donegal Racing's Keen Ice to have a say in the matter as one of the seven rivals slated to try to derail history.
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The tale of the tape on American Pharoah says only a serious change in form could deny him from becoming the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the American classics. Aside from his loss in his career debut, the "worst" race of his life was his 1-length victory in the Kentucky Derby. During his two breezes since his 7-length Preakness Stakes triumph, even the most jaded of pundits have thrown up their hands trying to find something to criticize.
Crawford's favorite stat, though, is the 37 years of evidence that says something will not go American Pharoah's way in the final leg of the Triple Crown. If there is a toe to be stubbed, Keen Ice's big-bodied, one-paced frame fits the profile of past spoilers who have grinded their way to the marathon victory.
"I think Dale (trainer Romans) ... is positive for different reasons than me," Crawford said. "He's a late-maturing colt and they think he's got a real big-time breakthrough race in him, it's coming. I'm high on him because I believe in history and history tells us that, as spectacular a horse as American Pharoah is, he is not bred to run 1½ miles.
"If he doesn't run on the front end, then he can't control the tempo. If he does run on the front end, he faces the reality of only two of the last 29 Belmont winners have won on the front end. And if you go back and watch the Derby and look at what happened to Keen Ice ... and still see him come the way he did, it gives you goose bumps when you think about what could happen going a mile and a half."
Keen Ice was not going to defeat American Pharoah on Derby Day, but he encountered enough problems during the stretch run to compromise any chance he had of at least landing in the top five.
After tracking along near the back of the 18-horse field, the son of Curlin ran up on a wall of traffic when jockey Kent Desormeaux tried to get him rolling at the head of the lane, forcing him to swing out several paths in order to get clear enough to make a surge to finish seventh.
However, Keen Ice has been trying to shed the underachiever label since his first appearance at Churchill Downs. After breaking his maiden there last Sept. 6 in his second career start, the stoutly built colt has lost his last six starts — all against graded stakes company — with his best finishes being third-place runs in the Grade II Remsen Stakes last November and the Grade II Risen Star in February.
"Knowing he was bred to succeed at longer distances and knowing he was a late-maturing colt, those are all very positive indicators when you think of a Triple Crown challenger," Crawford said. "What he does not have is an explosive turn of foot to make a spectacular move and we've never seen that out of him. What he does have is the ability to just keep coming and coming and grinding away. So that's if he is to win the Belmont, that's the way he'll have to do it."
Late-blooming runners who were previously undistinguished have a pretty good history in the Belmont Stakes. When Da'Tara spoiled Big Brown's Triple Crown bid in 2008, it marked that one's second career win. So too was the case for Commendable when he prevailed in 2000. Ruler On Ice's victory in 2011 was his first against graded stakes competition.
Before boarding the plane alongside American Pharoah to fly from Churchill Downs to Belmont Park on Tuesday, Keen Ice turned in his final major work, breezing 4 furlongs in :50.20 over the Louisville track. Romans said the colt has never had a bad day and maintains faith his best day could materialize under the right circumstances Saturday.
"He couldn't be more perfect than he is right now. It's just a matter of if he's good enough," Romans said. "(American Pharoah) is the best horse, but I think going up there history says something will go wrong. And I know we'll relish the 11/2 miles."
Keeneland will celebrate American Pharoah's bid to win the Belmont Stakes and become Thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown winner in 37 years with a Belmont Day event on Saturday that will feature drawings to place a $500 win bet on a horse in the Belmont, a flat-screen TV, and souvenir packages that include a $2 win ticket on American Pharoah and an official race program from Belmont Park.
Admission and parking at Keeneland willl be free. The gates will open at 9 a.m., and grandstand mutuel windows will open at 11:05 a.m.
Post time for Belmont's first race is 11:35 a.m., with the Belmont Stakes set to run at about 6:50 p.m.
Keeneland will simulcast the entire Belmont race card on its infield video board and televisions throughout the track.
Herald-lEADER stAFF rEPORT