American Pharoah Begins Triple Crown Countdown

The real celebration for American Pharoah could not officially start until the Kentucky Derby winner splashed past the finish of last Saturday’s 140th Preakness Stakes. But somewhere near the top of the soggy Pimlico homestretch, many admirers had already cast their eyes toward June 6 at Belmont Park.

That’s the date of the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of racing’s elusive Triple Crown.

By that point  in the Preakness, it had become clear that Ahmed Zayat’s homebred could name his margin as he toyed with his rivals – and that he was indeed America’s new hope to sweep the trio of races for the first time since 1978.

The Belmont Stakes, the mile-and-a-half race that’s been dubbed the “Test of the Champion,” has been a stumbling block for 13 Triple Crown hopefuls since Affirmed outlasted Alydar 37 years ago.

Three of those 13 were trained by Bob Baffert, who now has a fourth Triple Crown candidate in American Pharoah. But the Belmont Stakes ultimately shut down each Baffert bid.

Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) came close with runner-up finishes in the race, while a poor start doomed War Emblem (2002) two steps out of the starting gate.

American Pharoah rested for a day in Baltimore before boarding a return flight Monday to Louisville, where he’ll begin preparation for his shot at the Belmont.  He arrived at Churchill Downs in mid-afternoon and looked fit and rested when led off a van by assistant trainer Jim Barnes, a veteran with Baffert of the Triple Crown Trail.

“He’s a very good shipper,” Barnes told reporters who had awaited the return of racing’s newest star.  “He came in here with very high energy, so everything looks good.”

American Pharoah seems to possess every tool that might be required to end the Triple Crown dry spell.

To begin his list of strengths, American Pharoah proved some time ago that he’s the most talented member of his 3-year-old crop. His seven-length romp through the Preakness slop was his sixth consecutive victory. The only struggle during his streak was his one-length victory in the Derby.  Even on that day, he was drawing away at the finish.

In the joyful celebration that followed his Derby triumph, Baffert had praised the colt’s run. But in the days leading up to the Preakness, he finally conceded that the colt “probably didn’t bring his super ‘A’ game” to the Derby.

Consider that for a moment.

It’s very likely that when American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby – in which he defeated 17 rivals over the classic distance of a mile and a quarter and handled the countless distractions of a crowd exceeding 170,000 – he wasn’t quite at the top of his game.

Do you need to hear more?  Here we go.

The unflappable colt appears comfortable with any track condition. He cruised on sloppy tracks in the Arkansas Derby and the Pimlico course, drenched by the pre-race deluge on Preakness Day. His next challenge will be the sandy 1 1/2-mile Belmont oval and its sweeping turns.

Is there any doubt American Pharoah, with his near-perfect economy of motion and flawless stride, will love galloping around the massive turns of “The Big Sandy”?

His running style also fits the Belmont, a distance longer than the Derby by the length of Churchill Downs’ 1,235 1/2-foot homestretch. In the eyes of many, the Belmont distance seems to fit the late-charging horses (like Derby fourth-place finisher Frosted and Preakness runner-up Tale of Verve) that appear to need only a bit more ground to turn the tables on a speedy type like American Pharoah.

But through its history, the Belmont has favored horses with front-running or stalking speed, and American Pharoah possesses those gears in abundance.

If he trains well during the next two weeks, he’ll enter the starting gate at Belmont Park with only one lingering question: If luck is required during his mile-and-a-half run with history on the line, will he have it?

The impact of the luck factor won’t be known till Belmont Day.

In the meantime, Baffert’s team at Churchill Downs will scrutinize American Pharoah’s every move and assess each oat he consumes. That experienced team has been in this spot, but it’s quite possible that American Pharoah is unlike any other horse Baffert has taken to New York with a chance to, at long last, nail down a Triple Crown.

“You have to just prepare yourself for anything, because (the Belmont is) a tough one to win,” Barnes said. “The first one (the Kentucky Derby) is very tough. We’ve had a lot of success in the Preakness, and I don’t know why that is. The Derby winners and the horses that run well (for us) in the Derby ship up to Baltimore and really run well there.

“We’d love to win it, but if it doesn’t happen, we’re good losers.  But we would like to make history.” VT