ELMONT, N.Y. — Is he going to do it?
That's what the lady on my flight to New York wanted to know. She had spotted my Keeneland baseball cap. She had inquired if I might be going to the Belmont Stakes. My answer in the affirmative caused her to cut to the chase.
Is he going to do it?
No need to personalize the pronoun. By now most of the free world knows that Saturday at 6:50 p.m. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah will attempt to snap a devilish 37-year drought and become the first since Affirmed in 1978 to win Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.
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Since Affirmed, 13 horses have tried to become the 12th horse to accomplish one of the most difficult feats in sports. One unlucky candidate, I'll Have Another, scratched the day before the 2012 Belmont.
The rest were the defeated dozen. The most recent came 12 months ago when California Chrome finished the Belmont in a dead heat for fourth.
This time, however, there seems to be a little more confidence that perhaps, finally, maybe this is the year and Pharoah is the one.
"His chances are probably a little higher because of his rep, you know," said the trainer Nick Zito on Friday morning outside his barn at Belmont Park. "He's a 2-year-old champion. He's definitely the 3-year-old champion now. He's up there higher."
Better than most, Zito knows there are no sure things. Not in this race. He's won the Belmont Stakes twice, most recently with the long shot Da'Tara in 2008. The Zito winner people remember, however, is Birdstone's cruel victory over the popular Smarty Jones in 2004. Birdstone's owner Marylou Whitney apologized after the race. So did Zito.
"This is a different race," Zito said Friday as he watched his entry this year, Frammento, receive a bath. "So many horses, that's the only race they've won. I had one of them (Da'Tara). These horses are not going to run the mile and a half again. It's not like people think. That last eighth or that last quarter, it's different. It's a different deal."
How different? In the past 20 years, only two favorites have won the Belmont. Since Rags to Riches' win in 2007, just one winner ran with odds less than 9-1. (Trivia answer: Union Rags at $2.75-to-1 in 2012.)
Bob Baffert knows that. This is the fourth Triple Crown bid for American Pharoah's trainer. Silver Charm finished second in 1997. Real Quiet lost a photo finish to Victory Gallop in 1998. War Emblem stumbled at the start in 2002 and finished eighth.
"I'm responsible for the drought," quipped Baffert on Friday. "I should have won it a couple of times."
Anxious and exhausted in his previous tries at the Triple, Baffert is intent on enjoying this one. After Pharoah took a light gallop around the Belmont track, i.e. Big Sandy, on Friday morning, the 62-year-old could be found outside his barn taking his pony Smokey for a short ride.
"Just working off some nervous energy," said the California-based trainer. "There's no place to ride in Los Angeles."
OK, never mind Smokey, what about Pharoah?
"Still floating over the track," Baffert answered.
In fact, Pharoah has probably weathered the five weeks since his Kentucky Derby victory better than his owner, Ahmed Zayat, whose past business controversies, bankruptcy, lawsuits and gambling practices have been rehashed and scrutinized in recent days.
American Pharoah races with cotton in his ears to block out the noise, but no one would blame Zayat if he asked for a little cotton for his own.
"This isn't about me," said the owner. "This is about a once-in-a-lifetime horse."
Racing would be deliriously happy if American Pharoah is a once-in-37-years horse.
A horse will win the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes.
It only matters if THE horse wins the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes.
It's not even a question of can American Pharoah do it.
Is he going to do it?
It says here the answer is yes.
Said Baffert, "He just needs to bring it one more time."
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|