NEW YORK — It's not like American Pharoah has needed any portends or harbingers to help build his résumé of superiority. But the omens that cropped up during Wednesday's post position draw for the 147th Belmont Stakes fueled those looking for signs that the colt is in the on-deck circle of all-time greats.
Like 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew — the horse American Pharoah has been most prematurely compared to — the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner drew post No. 5 as his starting point for the final leg of the Triple Crown. And when Slew's front-running self completed his sweep of the American classics, he faced seven rivals, the same number American Pharoah is set to line up against in the 11/2-mile race at Belmont Park on Saturday.
A couple more days need to pass and one more herculean task needs to be achieved before American Pharoah can be put in the same breath as the above Hall of Famer and his 10 comrades in Triple Crown success.
Still, the odds are ever in his favor as the champion colt was installed as the 3-5 morning-line favorite for his try at becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 with a victory in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes.
The eight-horse Belmont field is the smallest since champion filly Rags to Riches topped a field of seven to win in 2007 and it is also right in line with positive historic results. None of the 11 Triple Crown winners faced more than seven rivals in the Belmont en route to their victories.
"I've always liked the five. It's one I've had good luck with," trainer Bob Baffert said of American Pharoah's post. "The main thing is that the horse is doing well. He's doing great, but we still have to get around there."
"I think we don't know until it happens. A mile and a half is very foreign for most of those 3-year-olds and for me. We're just going to get him ready, and if he's great, he'll get it done."
After shipping in Tuesday, American Pharoah had his first trip over the Belmont track Wednesday morning, jogging a full circuit around the oval under exercise rider Jorge Alvarez.
Seeing firsthand just how well the Zayat Stables' homebred has thrived since his 7-length Preakness win is causing some nerves among his competition. Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Grade I winner and 5-1 morning-line second choice Frosted, isn't so sure anymore whether American Pharoah on his best day can be bested.
"American Pharoah looks very, very good. We ran our 'A' race last time in the Derby, but I don't think we were going to beat American Pharoah no matter what happened," McLaughlin said in reference to Frosted's rallying fourth-place effort in the Kentucky Derby. "If everything went perfect for us, we're probably second-best, at best. Now we just have to hope that we run another 'A plus' race and American Pharoah runs a B race."
Frosted will break next to American Pharoah out of post No. 6, while fellow Grade I winner Materiality is likely to try to test the early fractions from the outside No. 8 slot.
Post position might not be so significant in a smaller field, but the lack of potential traffic doesn't make a jockey's tactical plan any less crucial.
Who, if anyone, tries to go with American Pharoah on the front end and the timing of a jockey's challenge are the X-factors in this year's test.
"Believe it or not, when it's a small field, it's not that easy," said Victor Espinoza, jockey for American Pharoah. "A lot of people think that because it's a small field it's easy, but it's more tough because ... the other riders worry about all the horses in the race and so they're more focused on the small field. In a big field, they're more focused on their own horse and trying to get out of trouble."
American Pharoah will be the only horse this year to run in all three legs of the Triple Crown, and those who lie in wait have had a top strike rate in the Belmont Stakes. Beginning with Empire Maker in 2003, all of the Belmont winners with the exception of Afleet Alex in 2005 were horses who either ran in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the Preakness or who had bypassed the first two legs of the Triple Crown entirely.
"(American Pharoah) is the horse to beat ... but it is his third race in five weeks, his fourth race in eight weeks," said McLaughlin, who skipped the Preakness with Frosted to point for the Belmont. "Just a combination of different things. I like what (trainer) Dale Romans says. 'It's always something,' So at 6:40 p.m. on Saturday, something happens."
Here is the complete lineup for the Belmont Stakes, with post positions and morning-line odds:
When: 6:50 p.m. Saturday | TV: NBC | Purse: $1.5 million | Distance: 1 ½ miles | Weight: 126 lbs.
|1||Mubtjaahij||de Kock||Ortiz Jr.||10-1|
|2||Tale of Verve||Stewart||Stevens||15-1|