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Show me another sport where champions are determined the way they are in horse racing: by splitting the players into ages, gender, specialties and playing surfaces, and then having a motley collection of three organizations, only one of which actually counts horsemen as members, vote to see who's best.
Then gather those voters in a cheesy Florida or California hotel ballroom, where they can drink moderately expensive Champagne and, nearly all of them, with no athletic expenditure of their own, distribute trophies among themselves and take lots of credit. I say, well done, Squire!
Don't get me wrong. The nice part is a never-ending supply of fuel for debate. Take 2009, when undefeated Zenyatta was Older Female Horse of the Year and her sister-in-furlongs Rachel Alexandra was overall Horse of the Year. Much more fun than Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford, I will tell you.
This week we have the added treat of American Pharoah, who has most likely already sewn up Three-Year-Old champion honors and maybe Horse of the Year, presented with the opportunity to not only render such conversation moot, but add his name to the scrolls of racing history by winning the American Triple Crown.
Things should be looking good for the son of Pioneerof the Nile as he peers out of the five hole, a sweet spot won by lottery Wednesday afternoon. He's looking good, seemingly none the worse for wear from the grind of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. But we know that 12th furlong Saturday will turn his legs to pudding and demand the champion's proof.
He arrived Tuesday at Belmont Park, making connections from fight camp at Louisville's Churchill Downs on Air Horse One with luxury livery to Belmont Park. It was the first time 'Pharoah set his eyes on Big Sandy, a drawback to some. If you're worried about American Pharoah's unfamiliarity with the room, it's as easy as Sinatra flying in from Palm Springs, going over the set list with Quincy and the Count, pounding a shot of Jack, running the scales and just killing the show. At least that's trainer Bob Baffert's plan.
And this is just as big. So big, they even allow cameras in the locker room (SFW).
As for Baffert, the silver-maned raconteur who's either a smart ass or a cool California dude (probably both), he makes his fourth attempt at the Triple Crown after failing with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. In the kind of three-card monte that I guess only super trainers can play, the one time he won the Belmont was in 2001 when his Point Given was soundly beaten in the Kentucky Derby but came back to win the Preakness.
If American Pharoah wins Saturday, you're still going to have to buy the economy-size jug of context. In 1978, Affirmed's Triple Crown year, the New York Yankees won the World Series with 695 team strikeouts; Reggie Jackson accounted for 133, almost twice as many as the next guy, Graig Nettles. Last year, with 12 fewer wins, the San Francisco Giants won it with 1,245 strikeouts, with three guys in triple figures.
Veteran horse racing writer Andrew Beyer, inventor of the Beyer Speed Figures, argues nearly no horses today can be trusted to "get the distance" of the 1.5-mile Belmont because of breeding, including, and perhaps especially, American Pharoah:
The quality of horses' performances in recent runnings of the Belmont, as measured by their winning times, has been dismal. From (Secretariat's 1973) through 2009, only two Belmonts were run slower than 2:30. But in four of the past five years, the winning time for the race has been 2:30.42 or worse.
Beyer's speed figures show that as recently as 2007, Rags to Riches ran a 107, while Belmont winners since have struggled to get three figures. Tonalist had a 100 last year. That's a big difference. Since 1992, Point Given's 114 is tops. The estimate is that Secretariat's Belmont Beyer, if Beyer had been publishing them back then, would have been 139!
While winning the Triple Crown is a tremendous achievement, only a decisive romp in this race will allow American Pharoah to be nearly discussed with past greats, Crown winners or not. But still, he will have won it in the context of his generation, be known as bridles above his generation, at a distance many generations past and those of the future now know as a great anachronism.
"[American Pharoah] inherits stamina from his sire and especially from his grandsire, Empire Maker, a Belmont Stakes winner and an influential stallion. But his dam, Littleprincessemma, contributes no stamina to the pedigree; her sire, dam and siblings were quick sprinters," Beyer says.
Which means, race fans, unless 'Pharoah has a freakish ability to recharge his batteries - and he might - he will be beatable and the race will be bettable. As a 3-5 morning line favorite, anything less than that might get comical, although I could see it happening.
Then, you have the demons that jockey Victor Espinoza will face, such as last year with California Chrome.
Seemingly interested in conserving energy, Espinoza, in the 2 post, kept 'Chrome near the lead but then got stuck inside three others on the back stretch. He made a move on the turn to get free, but it required him to go four or five wide. At that point, it was over. Lacking an energy burst, he faded to a dead heat for fourth.
Espinoza has relatively little experience at Belmont, but having run the Belmont Stakes last year with the same pressure, he's bound to have some confidence stashed in his saddle bag.
Bloodhorse.com's Steve Haskin compares the ordeal to a spin on the dark side of the moon:
[M]any jockeys who don't have experience at Belmont Park, especially going 1-1/2 miles, get lost on those sweeping turns, with the far turn being what I call the turn of no return. Once you make a mistake on that turn, especially going that far, there is no recovering from it.
Roger that, Mission Control.
The annual Ask Amy is to sincerely advise the jockey to get in as many rides at Belmont as he can the week of the big race. Espinoza, as of this writing, is scheduled for mounts in six other races Friday and Saturday, including the 1.5-mile Brooklyn Handicap three hours and 20 minutes before the Belmont. Unless something untoward happens, and he can control 'Pharoah, all he should need to do is determine if he has enough horse under him.
The odds and angles that all of the other connections are playing is that he won't, not after a tough Derby and the Preakness. If you follow all of the nuances like a Star Wars geek, Yahoo Sports's Pat Forde reports this:
American Pharoah dazzled a lot of veteran horsemen with his workout Monday at Churchill Downs. But Tuesday Baffert said something that raised an eyebrow, noting that his colt 'looks like a horse that's run in two big races, but I think his energy level is good.'
Trainers are always in a good place. The horse doesn't talk. "He just didn't have it today" or "He gave us everything he had, we can't ask any more out of him" is usually all you're going to get out of the colt's spokesman. You'll never see Pharaoh act like this and Baffert never even has to say "go ask the damn horse!"
As you immerse yourself in a full day of racing - first post is 10:35 a.m. CST for the Easy Goer Stakes - from beautiful Elmont, New York, keep these things in mind:
1. Don't believe the hype in American Pharoah, just use it to your advantage. Remember, the favorite hasn't won this race since Afleet Alex in 2005 and not since Thunder Gulch in 1995 before that. And in recent years, there have been winners with odds off the launching pad. Let 'Pharoah take his money and look elsewhere. If you truly believe he's unstoppable, box it - in the money will be a lot easier for him than winning it. I've never been a big fan of buying a ticket as a souvenir for a Triple Crown, unless I would be at Belmont, and you don't get a paper ticket online anyway.
2. Watch the pools! With hype like this, there is the possibility the Place and Show pools will swell with money that says "American Pharoah CAN'T do any worse than second or third." Get bigger than the win pool. That can be easy money. Even if he wins, another horse at 10-1 or better, of which there will be many, could pay big bucks in the second or third slots, or both. Also watch the pools for the individual horses. 'Pharoah will be taking a lot of win money. The less the others take, the higher their odds.
3. If you're playing exotics like Exactas, Trifectas or Superfectas, try to make wagers that do include and do not include American Pharoah, if you believe he'll be in the money. For these wagers, if he finishes third, fourth or fifth or worse, respectively, you have the chance to win big. I will be playing an Exacta and Trifecta where both will toss him.
4. Keep an eye on the earlier races. Try to get a feeling for if the rail is dead or the middle of the track is slow. Will they be closing or will frontrunners dominate? If you're streaming, try to keep an eye out for how long the tractors are on the track before the Belmont. Just sayin'.
5. You shouldn't have to worry about the weather. Earlier forecasts of rain would have given mudder 'Pharoah a distinct advantage, but now they're calling for a very nice day. Thankfully, it should be a fair test.
6. Try to take in the Metropolitan Handicap at 3:49 p.m. It includes Private Zone, defending Belmont champ Tonalist, Wicked Strong, Bayern, veteran Pants On Fire and Honor Code.
7. Don't go by me.
In a race like this, you try to beat the favorite and start by tossing whoever you can. That would be Frammento and Tale of Verve.
Materiality (out of Afleet Alex), Frosted (out of Tapit [Pulpit]), and Madefromlucky (out of Lookin At Lucky [Smart Strike]) will be the three mutuel challengers, based on distance pedigree. However, Keen Ice, out of Curlin by Smart Strike and an Awesome Again mare, is considered to have the best pure distance breeding in the race. He'll probably be a very healthy price.
I believe the best American Pharoah will do will be an all-out, courageous second, some distance behind the winner. Keep in mind that if 'Pharoah gets a nice lead and controls a slowish pace - worst case scenario for the others - he could wire it. Espinoza will have to run a perfect race with the amount of energy 'Pharoah is expected to have, or not have. He's in the five post, ideal. He'll have Frammento inside of him and rater/closer Frosted outside of him, even better. Perhaps only Madefromlucky will challenge him early, so Espinoza should be able to do what he wants. In other words, he'll have absolutely no excuses except fatigue.
I can't wait to see what Mubtaahij and Irad Ortiz will do with all of that distance. If the pools cooperate, I'll have them all to Show. Otherwise, it will be some creative boxes. Materiality and Mubtaahij will be prominent.
Sure, I'd like to see American Pharoah win the Triple Crown, but as a horseplayer, it's head over heart. You can't bet, at least not big, that he will.
For your viewing pleasure: NBCSportsNet will sign on Friday from 2:30 p.m. - 5 p.m. from Belmont. Be there at NBCSN on Saturday from 1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. and on plain old NBC from 3:30 p.m. - 6 p.m. The Belmont afterglow will continue over at NBCSN but NBC plans to Telstar straight down to Tampa for Blackhawks Game 2 at 6 sharp. So help me, if there's a delay at the post . . .
Our very own Eddie Olczyk has volunteered to play hookey from hockey to go to the track. He'll handle the handicapping duties at Belmont and miss Hawks-Lightning (I heard they prefer to be called "Bolts," so I won't). If the Rangers had won, he would have done both.
Great news. Zayat Stable has landed an endorsement deal for American Pharoah. Signage, such as it is at a horserace. But no, it's not this. Just this. With Monster girls and all the other distractions, Baffert may have to put his foot down.
As with the winners, the edge-of-history Triple Crown losers have their own stories, more diverse than you'd think. Since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978, we've had a baker's dozen, some of them true stars who couldn't, or just didn't, rise to Crown glory. See if you can spot some trends.
- 1979, Spectacular Bid, 3-10: Easily the best of these 13, the Belmont was 'Bid's first loss after 12 straight stakes wins. He lost only four of 30 lifetime races. It sure didn't help that 'Bid stepped on a safety pin the morning of the race, but supreme overconfidence on the part of trainer Bud Delp and jockey Ron Franklin probably explained why they sent Spectacular Bid in an effort to emulate Secretariat. He didn't, and finished third.
- 1981, Pleasant Colony, 4-5: His most notable achievements were as a sire, notably Pleasantly Perfect, but he was a nice runner who got hot in the first two legs. At two, he won the Remsen after archrival Akureyri was disqualified and placed third.
- 1987, Alysheba, 4-5: Alysheba more than held his own in battles with the likes of Bet Twice, Java Gold, Lost Code, Forty Niner and Seeking the Gold. He nearly fell in the Derby (at 2:10, second horse in the field) but stormed in for the win. An excuse or not, Alysheba ran in the Belmont without the diuretic Lasix, banned in New York at the time, and was a well-beaten fourth to rival Bet Twice.
- 1989, Sunday Silence, 9-10: A late bloomer on the track, Sunday Silence is known as much for his rivalry with Easy Goer, and a nose victory in the Preakness in one of the most memorable races of the last 30 years. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer could commiserate: they both had foot problems. After nearly killing trainer Charlie Whittingham the day before the Belmont with a kick to the head, 'Silence was soundly beaten by Easy Goer, who ran the second fastest Belmont in history.
- 1997, Silver Charm, Even: Silver Charm, who ran better as he aged, ran alongside the likes of Captain Bodgit, Free House and Belmont slayer Touch Gold. Jockey Gary Stevens said 'Charm ran the best race of his life at Big Sandy, in a losing effort. After champion and Derby winner Ferdinand was unceremoniously sent to the slaughterhouse in Japan at the end of his stud career, American owners began the practice of buy-back clauses, giving previous owners first right in buying back horses. Silver Charm benefitted and is now retired at Old Friends Equine in Kentucky.
- 1998, Real Quiet, 4-5: Real Quiet and Victory Gallop had finished 1-2 in both the Derby and Preakness. But Baffert's second consecutive try at the Crown was thwarted when Victory Gallop ran down Real Quiet in the final steps of one of the most thrilling Belmonts ever. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, whose reputation I still believe hasn't recovered, was roundly criticized for sending Real Quiet out front too fast and then gunning him again at the halfway point of the race.
- 1999, Charismatic, 8-5: Charismatic was a disrespected horse who shocked the Kentucky Derby at 31-1. Despite being a somewhat insulting 8-1 in the Preakness, he carried his form to defeat Menifee for the second time in the Crown march. He led late in the Belmont but faded to third behind Lemon Drop Kid. Jockey Chris Antley, sensing a problem, suddenly pulled Charismatic up. He had dislocated an ankle in the race. Surgery saved him that night. Long run, Antley wasn't so lucky. In December 2000 Antley, who had battled addictions for years, was found dead under suspicious circumstances in his California home.
- 2002, War Emblem, 6-5: Yet another attempt for Baffert, who came late to this horse via a sale; we remember War Emblem for winning the 2002 Illinois Derby. I still don't know how he survived it, having been held at the old Sportsman's Park after it had been turned into the Chicago Motor Speedway. The track was nothing more than dirt on top of the car track. Singularly a frontrunner, War Emblem stumbled badly out of the Belmont gate and, while he put forth a valiant effort, couldn't recover to beat Sarava, who paid at 70-1.
- 2003, Funny Cide, Even: The gelding was the first New York-bred to win the Derby and first gelding to win the Preakness since 1896. The charge of Sackatoga Stables, whose party-large entourage arrived at races in rented yellow school buses, Funny Cide had turned in a blazing fast workout a week before the Belmont. While some thought it may have burned him out, Funny' was rank for most of the race, run in the slop with Jose Santos trying to control him, and finished third behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted. After an up-and-down career, the hard knocker returned to his home stomping ground on Independence Day 2007 and won the Wadsworth Handicap at Finger Lakes in his last race.
- 2004, Smarty Jones, 3-10: Smarty's Belmont, specifically the ride of jockey Stewart Elliot, is debated to this day. Miraculously, Smarty' was racing in 2004 after fracturing his skull in a gate-training accident the previous July. Popularizing the Arkansas route to the Triple Crown, same as 'Pharoah's, he came into the Derby undefeated. After impressive wins in the first two legs, Smarty and Elliot got caught in a dark place in the Belmont. After gunning to the lead out of the gate and figuring to relax and be around the lead, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington forced - in what some called a mugging - a speed pace that rivaled Secretariat's 31 years earlier. Those two faded and little Birdstone, better suited for the distance, caught Smarty' in the final yards. Even now, Elliot is torched for seemingly trying to wire - or falling prey to the pace - the 12-furlong Belmont. It was his last race. Citing severe ankle bruising that some of us still don't believe, he was retired that August.
- 2008, Big Brown, 3-10: A freaky horse in a freakish year. He could have won the Crown except for two things: notoriously bad feet and a questionable rider's decision. Tied in with a UPS deal, of course, 'Brown dominated the Derby from the 20 post! That was the race where the filly Eight Belles, who finished second, broke down just past the wire and had to be put down. Afterwards, trainer Rick Dutrow (now banned from the game) bragged about 'Brown's legal steroid regimen. After romping in the Preakness, the cover-up was on as the horse developed (another) cracked hoof on the left front. Steel sutures and even fiberglass patches were used. As they rounded the last turn, Desormeaux suddenly pulled him up and stopped. A loose shoe was later mentioned. My take? It was a rough trip and Desormeaux didn't think he had enough horse. He didn't think he was going to win, but he also didn't want to lose. He didn't have the guts to even canter the horse across the wire. The "out of gas" excuse not nearly enough, he should have been suspended for a year, at least. At 38-1, Da' Tara, who never won again, wore the carnations that day. Brown won the Haskell and Monmouth Stakes and was retired with another foot injury just short of the Breeders' Cup.
- 2012, I'll Have Another, 4-5 morning line: Led to the Derby post by racing great Lava Man as his lead pony, the well-bred I'll Have Another, winner of the Santa Anita Derby, pulled off the 15-1 upset over Bodemeister. He repeated it to win the Preakness. On the Friday morning before, I'll Have Another became just the third horse ever to be denied a Triple Crown through a scratch in the Belmont. A strained tendon was the cause and he never raced again.
- 2014, California Chrome, 4-5: Still running, California Chrome became as famous for his owner declaring his Belmont Stakes opponents "cowards" for not racing in all three legs as he was in contending for the crown. After a relatively easy win in the Derby, he carried that form, as many do, to a 1.5-length win in the Preakness. With the knock that he needed everything to go his way to win out, it didn't. He was stepped on coming out of the 2 post, which also meant he was on the inside. Tired, he never got free of traffic and finished a brave fourth, less than two lengths back. Despite efforts to dub him America's Horse, 'Chrome has endured more second- and third-bridesmaid finishes but did win the Hollywood Derby late last year. He's winless but competitive this year, and left a game second-place finish in the Dubai World Cup to train and run in England on the turf. America's Horse is summering in Europe.
Some of them were truly great horses; all highly favored to win the famous third leg. All kinds of circumstances conspired to keep them away.
If American Pharoah wins the 2015 Belmont Stakes, enjoy it now. It'll be awhile before the next one.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.