Kentucky Derby

American Pharoah to defy history by not working out at Belmont before Triple Crown attempt

LOUISVILLE — American Pharoah's stride has been described as poetry in motion.

He has used it to prevail over five different racetracks.

And in the process, he has run every challenger into the ground since last September, including all of those expected to test him again in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

The stride that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner unfurls is something his trainer, Bob Baffert, says he has never quite seen before.

It's the bay colt's trademark weapon. And unless it shortens considerably over the Belmont Park oval next Saturday, there might be nothing to stop American Pharoah from becoming the chosen one that finally increases the list of Triple Crown winners to a dozen.

The sandy track American Pharoah will have to travel on for 12 furlongs, however, brings its own formidable form to the table. And if there is an entity capable of knocking the reigning juvenile male champion off stride in his path to history, some think the deep, tiring Belmont Park surface could be the leading contender.

The benefit of home-court advantage is much bandied about this time of year with both the NBA and NHL postseasons nearing completion.

As Zayat Stables' homebred American Pharoah trains at Churchill Downs in preparation for his attempt at becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, the question has been raised as to whether those who have prior experience or significant training over the Belmont Park surface have an edge in the 11/2-mile classic.

American Pharoah is following a similar pattern as Baffert's previous Triple Crown hopefuls — Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) — in that he is having his final major move at Churchill Downs before shipping in on Tuesday ahead of the Belmont Stakes.

While that trio all suffered defeats in their Belmont Stakes runs, the surface is rarely cited as a factor in their undoings. War Emblem lost all chance when he stumbled out of the gate, and Silver Charm and Real Quiet got beat by just three-quarters of a length and a nose, respectively.

"I don't really think it makes a difference. I've had so much luck shipping out of Churchill Downs in New York and won numerous Grade I races, and they never looked like they were tired," Baffert said. "Every trainer has their own philosophy and their comfort level and I feel more confident doing that. Our main concern is to keep (American Pharoah) healthy and happy."

However, recent history tips its hat toward horses who have gotten acclimated with the track known as "Big Sandy."

Dating to 1995, the only Belmont Stakes winners that did not have either their final work over the track or a prior start at Belmont in their past performances were Ruler On Ice in 2011 and Commendable in 2000.

As a comparison, four of the last 13 Kentucky Derby winners — including California Chrome in 2014 and I'll Have Another in 2012 — triumphed without having their final work or a prior start at Churchill Downs.

Baffert's own history reads both with and against the above trend. His lone Belmont Stakes winner, Point Given in 2001, also put in his final work at Churchill Downs before shipping to New York the following Wednesday. Unlike American Pharoah, Point Given owned a prior start over the Belmont surface, running second in the 2000 Grade I Champagne Stakes.

"I think it's massive, it's huge," trainer Ken McPeek, who won the 2002 Belmont Stakes with Sarava and is slated to saddle The Truth Or Else in the race Saturday, said of prior Belmont experience. "You learn lessons as a trainer losing races, and in the 1999 Belmont, I ran a horse called Pineaff and the horse completely floundered over the Belmont racetrack. And I swore I would never run another horse in the Belmont without training at Belmont."

"It really, really surprised me," added Billy Turner, trainer of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, of American Pharoah doing all of his major training at Churchill Downs. "It does give you an edge if you've trained over (Belmont)."

Belmont Park is unique because of its massive size and track composition. Tricky as the timing can be for jockeys unfamiliar with the cavernous oval, how the main surface plays in the summer heat can also be a factor that jumps up and bites Belmont Stakes contenders.

"If it's steamy hot and there is a warm dry spell coming up to the Belmont, that track will be very difficult for them to keep moisture in, which makes it a beach," McPeek said. "And when it's a beach, horses have to have massive amounts of stamina to win over it."

Given how tiring the Belmont surface can be, not all who have prevailed in the final leg of the Triple Crown subscribe to the theory that any experience is better than no experience over the track.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said he didn't have any of his four Belmont Stakes winners, Commendable included, work over the track in advance of their wins — reason being that having just one timed breeze over a different surface could set back his horse's development.

"When you change surfaces with one work, you probably use some muscles you haven't used before," Lukas explained. "If you're going to change surfaces, what you need to do I think is do it a number of times. It's kind of like if you're jogging on a high school track and then you go jogging on the beach, you wake up the next day and probably say, 'Damn, I'm sore all over.' So I never do that. I don't think (one work) is the advantage at all.

"I think Bob is doing it exactly how I would do it. He's handling this beautifully."

Making it oh-so-easy for Baffert to brush back critiques of his tactics is the fact no track and no recent challenger has revealed any flaw in American Pharoah's ability. The son of Pioneerof the Nile has earned his six career wins at five different tracks. He has proven as dominant in sloppy conditions as over speed-favoring California surfaces.

"The way he moves, I've never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does," Baffert said. "I've had some really good horses, but I've never had a horse that moves like that."

If there is a track that is comparable to Belmont, it could be Oaklawn Park — the same surface American Pharoah danced over during his 8-length win in the Grade I Arkansas Derby.

"I don't think it matters for American Pharoah. He could probably run down a street over broken glass or over Belmont Park," said Belmont-based trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who is seeking his second Belmont Stakes victory with Grade I winner Frosted. "I don't think he needs his racetrack and I don't think working over it is going to make him like it any more than if he doesn't."

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