NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — All that separates American Pharoah from ending the longest drought in horse racing history — 37 years without a Triple Crown winner — is 1 1/2 miles and seven rivals determined to make him earn a victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Twelve horses before him have tried to complete the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont and failed since 1978. Now it’s American Pharoah’s turn Saturday.
The bay colt with the unusually short tail appears to have come through the Derby and Preakness with energy to spare, and he’ll need it in the longest and most grueling of the three-race series.
American Pharoah galloped around the big Belmont oval Thursday before visiting the paddock where he will be saddled on race day. He took to the track again Friday for his final tuneup. He is the heavy 3-5 early favorite.
Before Affirmed swept the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, 25 years had passed between Triple Crown winners Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. Now it’s 37 years, with a chance for American Pharoah to make history and goose the struggling sport or become just another miss.
“There’s a lot of anxiety,” said Bob Baffert, the only trainer to lose the Belmont three times with horses that had won the first two legs. “I don’t even think about the history.”
American Pharoah and seven rivals will run the longest race of their lives Saturday. If there’s rain in the forecast, give the edge to American Pharoah, who romped to a seven-length win in the Preakness after a massive downpour occurred as the horses were going to the starting gate.
The colt’s grand-sire, Empire Maker, won the 2003 Belmont, spoiling Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid.
This time, the competition seems committed to sticking closer to American Pharoah, whose preferred running style is at the front, although he’s shown he can sit off the early pace and win. How many of the horses press the early pace will determine who has enough gas left for the 1,097-yard run down the stretch.
“I want him to break cleanly and freely,” Baffert said, “and have Victor put him in the mode where he’s comfortable. I’m sure they’re all going to be pretty close together.”
Just as horses aren’t used to running 1 1/2 miles, jockeys aren’t used to riding races that long, either. The Belmont has undone some who have moved too soon and burned out their horses. Others have moved too late and let the leaders get away.
The track’s deep, sandy surface can prove tiring to run on, the turns are sweeping, and the poles used by jockeys to judge their location are placed differently than at the mile tracks where most of them ride.