Kentucky Derby

After 37 years of Triple Crown failure, American Pharoah poised to be the one

ELMONT, N.Y. — There is the infamous safety pin. Rider error. Pedigree shortcomings. A legendary conqueror. Poor racing luck and a couple career-ending injuries. Just to name a few.

Since 1978, the list of excuses for those who have stumbled in their attempt to sweep the American classics have piled up 13-fold. In that time, a baker's dozen of horses put the first two legs of the Triple Crown on their résumé and marched into the Belmont Stakes 12 furlongs away from sporting immortality.

Four of the names on that list represent Hall of Fame royalty. All had frailties exposed in the very moment everything had to go perfect.

A sweet-natured bay colt with ferocious talent will step to the Belmont Park starting gate Saturday evening as the 14th horse in 37 years to try to achieve what some all-time greats couldn't.

Attempts to find weaknesses in American Pharoah have been futile to this point as each of his six wins from seven career starts have demonstrated some new level of freakish ability. Now comes the real, unforgiving measure of how high his ceiling of talent extends.

If American Pharoah can avoid the pitfalls of past brethren, if he can sustain his form and fend off misfortune for one more race in Saturday's 147th Belmont Stakes, the Thoroughbred racing community will get what it says it has been most thirsty for: its 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978.

Since losing his career debut last August, American Pharoah has won six straight races by a combined margin of 301/4 lengths, including his 1-length triumph in the Kentucky Derby and 7-length clinic in the Preakness Stakes. Those saddling his opponents don't even try to make a case for him not being the best horse. They mostly hope a combination of circumstances rise up and do to him in the Belmont what they did to the likes of Spectacular Bid in 1979, Alysheba in 1987 and most recently California Chrome last season.

After all, few horses looked as unbeatable as Spectacular Bid did at this point. And were it not for the Hall of Famer reportedly stepping on a safety pin in his stall, and then getting an ill-timed ride by jockey Ron Franklin en route to finishing third to Coastal in his Belmont Stakes, the colt that trainer Buddy Delp deemed "the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle" would likely be on the racing Mount Rushmore with little debate.

Assuming all sharp objects are well out of American Pharoah's way, some learned horsemen feel he has the intangibles that will make his Triple Crown try one to be feted rather than mourned. Where Sunday Silence in 1989 had a fellow future Hall of Famer in Easy Goer destroying his hopes for history in the Belmont, Frosted and Materiality are the only Grade I winners in this year's eight-horse Belmont field besides the reigning juvenile male champion — and both were well beaten by the latter on Derby Day.

While Frosted and Materiality bypassed the Preakness to take aim at the Belmont, American Pharoah has really only had one taxing race from his four starts this year, that being his Kentucky Derby victory where he prevailed despite having what his connections considered an off day for him.

"I think he'll win and win easy," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had Charismatic going for the Triple Crown in 1999 only to have that one suffer a career-ending injury in the stretch while finishing third. "The thing that makes American Pharoah probably in a better position than most of them in the past 30 years is the fact that he's had two easy races (Rebel and Arkansas Derby), one tough one (Kentucky Derby) and then another easy one (Preakness).

"Now he's going in with three weeks' rest. I think he's in the best shape in years of anyone going for the Triple Crown, plus he's a very talented horse."

American Pharoah's best weapon is one that is proven to be most effective in the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes, that being his remarkably efficient stride and effortless early speed.

He won't be at the mercy of the pace as Pleasant Colony was in his failed bid in 1981, and the Zayat Stables' homebred has also proven he can rate a little, unlike the one-dimensional War Emblem in 2002 who lost all chance when he stumbled at the break.

Rider error is perhaps the most common excuse used when analyzing recent Triple Crown miscues. Chris McCarron admitted to giving Alysheba a less-than-stellar ride and a premature move by Kent Desormeaux aboard Real Quiet in 1998 may have been what allowed Touch Gold to put his nose down first in the nail-biting finish.

To that end, American Pharoah has a man at the helm who has been there, done that and theoretically learned what not to do. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, was the rider for both War Emblem and California Chrome and has said his current mount is more tactical than either of those two.

"There will be a lot of pressure on Victor ... and he will know when he warms him up what kind of horse he has underneath him and all that," said American Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert, who is making his fourth try at winning the Triple Crown having previously conditioned Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet and War Emblem.

Where distance limitations in pedigree were red flags for the brilliant Smarty Jones in 2004 and California Chrome last season, American Pharoah has some stamina on the top side of his family as his grandsire is 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker.

When Empire Maker himself defeated Funny Cide to ruin that one's Triple Crown bid, many viewed it as an example of a better horse who for whatever reason didn't fire on Derby Day prevailing over a less talented rival.

From his juvenile campaign onward, American Pharoah has been heralded as in a different stratosphere than his classmates. When the toll of the Triple Crown grind and the weight of expectations come to a head in the final furlong Saturday night, there might not be enough outside forces this time to argue against the best horse winning.

"He's a cinch, a super horse, bigger, better and faster than all of them," California-based trainer Bruce Headley said.

Added Baffert, "He's the best horse I've trained and he's my best hope for the Triple Crown. He was the champion last year and this year he has gone on and shown himself to be a superior horse."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments