American Pharoah seeks Triple Crown glory

Profile Picture: Ted Black

Ted Black

June 4th, 2015

This Saturday afternoon serious and novice thoroughbred racing fans alike will be heading to a track or simulcast facility or seated comfortably in their living rooms as Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner American Pharoah seeks his place in racing immortality when he contests the Belmont Stakes, once around the one-mile and one-half oval at Belmont Park.


Through the first four starts of his sophomore campaign, American Pharoah has been perfect and now the Bob Baffert trainee is only one win away from becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. The 'Pharoah' is the 35th horse to win the first two legs of the crown and the 13th since Affirmed completed the sweep 37 years ago. But this Saturday racing fans will discover whether or not American Pharoah deserves to be among the immortals who successfully completed the sweep or among the others who failed and will be remembered as being very good but far from great.


Baffert has been in this position on three other occasions with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem. Silver Charm and Real Quiet both took the lead turning for home, only to be nailed in deep stretch with immortality apparently within their grasp. Silver Charm got caught by Touch Gold, who had bypassed the Derby then finished fourth despite a troubled trip in the Preakness. Real Quiet came painstakingly closer than any horse who missed, getting nailed in the final strides by Victory Gallop, who had finished well behind him in the Derby and Preakness.


This Saturday evening when American Pharoah heads into the starting gate shortly before 7 p.m., this Baffert trainee will be joined by several foes he has already defeated in either the Derby or the Preakness. Of his seven rivals on Saturday, only one, Madefromlucky, did not compete in either the Derby or Preakness.


The field from the rail out in the Belmont reads Mubtaahij, Tale Of Verve, Madefromlucky, Frammento, American Pharoah, Frosted, Keen Ice and Materiality. American Pharoah is listed as the 3-5 morning line favorite, but look for the Derby and Preakness winner to be 2-5 or less in this group despite the presence of several horses who ran well in the Derby and then skipped the Preakness to focus on this event.


Frosted is expected to be the second choice for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin based on his solid, fourth-place effort in the Derby. Hindered by the large field and slow early tempo, Frosted closed well in the final half-mile to finish fourth. Granted, horses with his running style usually encounter trouble in the Belmont despite the perception that the longer race will help him. But Frosted returns to his home track on Saturday and, despite the pace scenario, will have considerably fewer horses to chase down in the final quarter-mile than he did in Louisville.


Despite drawing the outside slot on Saturday, Materiality is expected to be a factor throughout in the Belmont. Undefeated in three starts prior to the Derby, this Todd Pletcher trainee encountered trouble right from the outset and was last early and then rallied to finish sixth in a good effort. Materiality is expected to show considerably more speed on Saturday and his running style and a cleaner trip will make him a serious contender.


Mubtaahij had been the darling of Dubai among the three-year-olds, winning twice at the Preakness distance of one-mile and three-sixteenths at Meydan before finishing a nondescript eighth in the Derby. Mubtaahij was the only runner in the Derby not on Lasix and likewise he is the only horse in the Belmont not on the anti-bleeding medication. His long term goal is the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan, where Lasix is prohibited. So on his home course next spring he will be tough, but on Saturday his connections may regret not running him on the medication.


Madefromlucky arrives off a good win in the Peter Pan Stakes, the last local prep for the Belmont. But this Pletcher trainee did not appear to relish the nine furlongs going one turn, so his chances of getting another three furlongs around two turns against Grade I foes might be limited. Both Frammento and Keen Ice competed in the Derby, but skipped the Preakness to head here, while Tale Of Verve finished second in the Preakness only one start after breaking his maiden at Keeneland. But the latter three horses all look several steps down on the class ladder.


American Pharoah has won all four of his starts this year and now arrives at the gates of history on Saturday. His efforts have been commendable for sure, but on each occasion he did enjoy favorable conditions. In the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, he splashed to a wire-to-wire victory over a sloppy track then in the Arkansas Derby he sat just off a cheap speed horse, collared him at his leisure and then drew off. In the Derby he raced three-wide on both turns, but was up close to a modest pace and raced on the better part of the track that day. Then in the Preakness he went wire-to-wire over a rain-soaked track - the downpour occurred less than 20 minutes before the race - and sprinted clear with longshot Tale Of Verve rallying for second.


But those who follow racing at Pimlico or in general know that two-turn routes on sloppy or wet fast tracks often produce the biggest, speed-biased runaway winners. American Pharoah trounced his foes and relished the off going, but most speed horses usually do. The telling sign about his Belmont Stakes chances rested in his final three-sixteenths, a pedestrian 20.5 seconds. Considering that he will have to travel another five-sixteenths in the Belmont, which could take him 35 seconds, stretching out may not be to his liking.


American Pharoah is going to the 1-4 favorite in the Belmont on Saturday and racing fans will be rooting for him to end the sport's prolonged Triple Crown drought. But unless he enjoys another favorable trip and pace scenario, he looks destined to suffer a similar fate. My guess is Materiality makes his presence known early and forces the tempo, which will enable Frosted to overhaul the favorite in the lane and send American Pharoah enthusiasts home with a grimace. Order of finish - Frosted, American Pharoah, Mubtaahij in 2:30.76.


Saturday's Belmont Stakes is the 11th race on an exceptional stakes-filled card that includes the Metropolitan Handicap, the Acorn Stakes, the Woody Stephens, the Ogden Phipps, the Manhattan, the Brooklyn Invitational, the Just A Game and the Easy Goer.


One race before the Belmont, several of the top grass horses in the land will clash in the Manhattan, featuring Twilight Eclipse, Finnegans Wake, War Dancer, Big Blue Kitten and Jack Milton. One race prior the top older dirt runners will clash in the Met Mile, a race typically held on Memorial Day but moved to Belmont Stakes day to help bolster a card that is arguably the best stateside since the Breeders Cup. Familiar faces include Tonalist, Private Zone, Bayern, Wicked Strong and Honor Code.


While Pletcher may have a modest chance of winning the Belmont, his talented trainee Competitive Edge will put his unblemished record on the line in the Woody Stephens. Then two races later on the card Untapable, last year's Breeders Cup Distaff champion, will go postward in the $1 million Ogden Phipps at the one-turn distance of one-mile and three-sixteenths. The Easy Goer  Stakes kicks off the card promptly at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.