Saturday, American Pharoah makes his bid to join the most elite club in horse racing.
With a victory at the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes in New York, the 3-year-old colt would become only the 12th Triple Crown winner in history and first since Affirmed in 1978.
In winning the first two legs, American Pharoah has demonstrated the strength, vigor and competitive edge to make analysts believe he has the best chance of the 12 horses to have vied for the Triple Crown in the past 38 years.
He will break from the gate Saturday as the prohibitive favorite after opening at 3-5.
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“It’s a great opportunity,” said trainer Steve Asmussen, the most successful trainer in Lone Star Park’s 18 seasons. “I’d love to see a Triple Crown winner. I would sure like to see it happen.
“It would be special.”
Asmussen has had success in the classics, including guiding Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra (2008) to Preakness victories. Curlin registered a second in the Belmont and a third Kentucky Derby eight years ago.
Nehro raced to second in the 2011 Derby and Astrology was thirdat the Preakness the same year.
With four horses on Saturday’s undercard, Asmussen will be a witness to what he hopes will be American Pharoah’s gallop to history.
Here are Asmussen’s five keys to winning the Triple Crown:
1. The horse
The regal bloodlines of thoroughbreds would make the House of Windsor blush with inadequacy.
Genes are a big part of the equation, and American Pharoah has a pedigree that has produced a handsome physical specimen on the track.
“It has to be special,” Asmussen said. “To be in any of the classics, you’re obviously an extremely talented horse. To win all three in one year, it’s a fortitude that matches their ability.”
American Pharoah, indeed, boasts the blue blood of horse racing nobility.
He’s the great-great-great-grandson of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat and has relatives in Man o’ War and Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew through lineage traced to Darley Arabian in the 1700s.
Analysts question, however, whether his breeding, while bred fast, is conducive to a long distance, such as 1 1/2 miles. Still, his fast running style is thought to be ideal to keep him out of trouble.
2. Durability and consistency
The grind of the Triple Crown races demand a horse with an emotional and physical durability, Asmussen said.
A combination of the difficult work involved with getting ready and racing the first two legs and the Belmont’s challenging 1 1/2 miles have caused many would-be Triple Crown winners to hit a wall.
American Pharoah is thought to be fresh, having been lightly raced with three starts as a 2-year-old and only two races as Derby preparation.
Affirmed, Asmussen said, “was the same horse in all three races.”
American Pharoah represents trainer Bob Baffert’s fourth attempt at the Triple Crown.
His most recent entrant, War Emblem, finished a disappointing eighth in 2002.
Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) each was second.
Meanwhile, jockey Victory Espinoza will be making a third attempt at the distinction.
Experience counts for something, Asmussen said.
“In this scenario, with Baffert and Espinoza having so much success, that would definitely lean on the plus side.”
Baffert, perhaps because of his experience, delayed moving American Pharoah to Belmont Park until this week in a move designed to keep him in a good mood. Instead, the horse worked out at Churchill Downs, where he is more comfortable.
4. Balance of competition
Dealing with “the variable of competition,” Asmussen said. “That’s what changes for all of the Triple Crown races.
Affirmed faced 20 horses total during his journey to the Triple Crown in 1978. This year’s Kentucky Derby alone featured a field of 18.
A horse who was either a newcomer or skipped the Preakness has won the Belmont each of the past six races run with the Triple Crown on the line, including a year ago when California Chrome was beaten by Tonalist.
The disappointment in the result set off California Chrome owner Steve Coburn, who ranted afterward that the deck was stacked against Triple Crown bids and that a rules change needed to be made requiring each aspirant to run in all three classics or none.
This year, Materiality and Carpe Diem each ran the Derby, but skipped the Preakness.
Afleet Alex was the last Belmont winner to have also competed in the Derby and Preakness, in 2005.
Asmussen was more diplomatic.
“It takes an extreme amount of fortune and circumstances,” he said.
Starting with the post position draw.
A draw on the inside in a field as large as the Kentucky Derby can sink hopes before the race even starts. Jockeys with horses starting on the inside must summon early speed to get out of traffic along the rail.
After drawing a favorable No. 18 post in Kentucky, American Pharoah landed in the No. 1 post for the Preakness, an unlucky turn for Baffert, who up until that time had never drawn the inside at Pimlico.
“I never like the one-hole,” Baffert said then. “I’ve been so lucky. You don’t like to see it, but if he’s the best horse we’ll find out.”
Like the Preakness, though, American Pharoah’s draw — he’ll start fifth Saturday— isn’t as important in a smaller field. He has seven other rivals.
And then there’s the element of the unknown in sports. Sometime the unthought-of occurs.
“American Pharoah can run well enough to win the Belmont, but on that one given day one of the others can summon the greatest effort of their life,” Asmussen said. “That’s always a possibility.”
Triple Crown winners