A Mile and a Half From History

Thoroughbred racing is a passion that inspires one to rise early.

Each morning at the track presents possibility. You never know just what you might miss if you fail to show up  for those early hours.

I’ve experienced that part of the magic of Thoroughbred racing in recent weeks through ample opportunities to watch American Pharoah, as he’s trained daily over the main track at Churchill Downs.

I’ve seen many very good horses train during my time at Churchill Downs, which dates to my arrival as a radio reporter prior to Gato Del Sol’s victory in the 1982 Derby.

Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, Martin Garcia up, prepped for the Belmont Stakes in a strong five-furlong work on Monday at Churchill Downs. Photo by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, Martin Garcia up, prepped for the Belmont Stakes in a strong five-furlong work on Monday at Churchill Downs. Photo by Reed Palmer | Churchill Downs

But none have stirred morning emotions like American Pharoah, whose every step screams, “I’m special!” and suggests you’d best stick around for the next few minutes.

This Saturday, the Bob Baffert-trained Derby winner will slide into the starting gate at Belmont Park, in search of a victory in the one and a half mile Belmont Stakes, the final jewel of the Triple Crown. Despite plenty of chances, a sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont was last accomplished 37 years ago, when Affirmed turned back lifelong rival Alydar to take the Triple Crown in 1978.

Pharoah will be the 14th winner of the Derby and Preakness, since Affirmed, to head to Belmont Park. Baffert has trained three of those, just missing with runners-up Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet a year later.

In the weeks leading up to the Derby, I tried to find a horse that would defeat the favored American Pharoah. During that quest, I witnessed his only work over the Churchill Downs strip a few days before the Run for the Roses.

His pre-Derby training move was a sparkler that instantly compelled me to forget about trying to beat him in the Derby.

That moment came to mind this past Monday, as I watched Pharoah cruise through a dazzling five-furlong workout, his last serious training move prior to a Tuesday journey to New York.

Having watched him grind out a tough Derby victory and sail to an easy romp over a sloppy Preakness track, I was a believer heading into Monday’s work. And I came away more impressed than ever with Pharoah’s perfect economy of motion and the strong hold required of jockey Martin Garcia to keep him from exceeding his impressive final time of 1:00.20 for five furlongs.

The Monday move, like his pre-Derby work, compelled me to believe my eyes, which told me that the Derby winner is the horse to win Belmont Stakes and become only the 12th Triple Crown winner in history.

  The work elicited widespread “wows” for Pharoah’s power and potential to do much more, had Garcia loosed his hold. After the colt was back in the barn, Baffert expressed optimism – albeit cautiously – about Pharoah’s chances on Saturday.

“The only time we get nervous is if things aren’t going well,” Baffert said.

He went on to add: “So far everything’s been right on schedule. We haven’t had any setbacks.”

Baffert has four Derby and six Preakness wins – but only one in the Belmont, a 2001 romp by Point Given, who took the back two-thirds of the Triple Crown after a mystifying fifth-place Derby finish. A win by Pharoah would let the Hall of Fame trainer join Billy Turner, who saddled unbeaten Seattle Slew to sweep the 1977 Triple Crown, as the only living trainers to have completed it.

Baffert wants to win on Saturday, and he clearly appreciates the special nature of the Triple Crown. But despite four trips to the winner’s circle at the Derby, he’s repeatedly testified that the Run for the Roses remains his top goal. That fact, combined with his Triple Crown near misses, adds perspective to the American Pharoah experience.

“We’re not going to be overwhelmed by it, because we’re used to the ‘Big Show,’” Baffert said. “The vibe here with this horse has been, ‘Just enjoy him.’ They don’t come around very often. (We’re trying) not to get in his way and to prepare him as best we can to get him in position to win.”

With the Belmont Stakes post draw set for Wednesday, it appeared Monday that seven rivals would face Pharoah. The belief in this corner is three horses – all of whom finished behind him in the Derby – possess the potential to both derail Pharoah’s Triple Crown bid and (again) break the collective heart of American racing.

The strongest threat could be the Todd Pletcher-trained Materiality, who suffered his only career loss in a sixth-place Derby finish, due to a poor start and other traffic woes.

Materiality’s true running style could have him in the lead or stalking the pace on Belmont Day. His style, which is similar to Pharoah’s, fits the profile of most recent Belmont winners. The two could be 1-2 when the field turns for home on Saturday.

Frosted, a late-running fourth in the Derby, will be a popular upset choice, having closed well in the Derby. He’s trained well for Kiaran McLaughlin and should be much closer to the pace in the Belmont’s early going. A live outsider is Keen Ice, a stretch runner trained by Louisville native Dale Romans, whose seventh-place Derby finish is much more impressive upon close inspection.

And there are two non-equine roadblocks that could contribute to an extension of the Triple Crown drought.

One is Belmont Park’s massive racing surface – “The Big Sandy” – a love-or-hate that’s left many horses spinning their wheels over the years. If Pharoah fails to handle the surface, the Belmont’s rugged mile and a half could seem like an uphill run.

Also looming is the possibility of horrendous luck. A mile and a half is a long way to run, but it might not be nearly long enough if the Derby winner encounters misfortune during the race.

Despite the challenges, Pharoah has the right stuff to end 37 years of Triple Crown frustration. After Saturday, we’ll call him Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. And Materiality, Keen Ice and Frosted will follow him home. VT