Bob Baffert Triple Crown Bid: It's About Time with American Pharoah

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TwinSpires Staff

May 22nd, 2015


Hall of Fame Trainer Bob Baffert’s decision to train Kentucky Derby and Preakness-winner American Pharoah at Churchill Downs leading up to the Belmont has elicited an avalanche of opinions. But there is one big question: Can American Pharaoh do it? 

With over 25 years as a horseplayer, a workout analyst and, especially, as a horseman who uses that industry experience to buy and sell his own stock — my answer to that question begins and ends with the horse. 

Time is the key with any horse - the time a horse needs to develop, the time a horse needs to recover, and the time a horse has in terms of longevity.

Horses, like other athletes, work within a windows of longevity. A running back has a smaller window of time than a quarterback, as a wide receiver does to a lineman. Multiple factors converge into an optimal window of time through which the very best champions accomplish their excellence.

"Time" might the the answer to the Triple Crown in more ways than one. 

The road to the Derby is physically and emotionally exhausting to both equine athletes and their human teams. For 90%, the Derby itself is the third race in a span of 60 days or less. The average period of rest is 25 to 45 days between those starts, culminating in the third, on the biggest stage of all. 

What we are looking for is the time between the two starts leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the Derby being the third race of that pattern.

For example: Horse runs on march 1, April 1 and then May 1 in the Kentucky Derby = 61 days between the three and average of 30 days between the three races.

American Pharoah notched 49 days between the Rebel Stakes and the Kentucky Derby with a total average of 24.5 days between the his Derby victory and two prior starts. 

The Derby runner-up, Firing Line, enjoyed a leisurely 85 days between the February 7th Robert B Lewis and the Derby, for an average of 42.5 days between his last three starts. 

Frosted, who finished fourth in the Derby, had his last start 70 days earlier in the Fountain of Youth, giving him a three race pattern averaging 35 days between starts.

From a ‘freshness' angle, both Firing Line and Frosted win…but American Pharoah bested both in the Derby and rolled just two weeks later in the Preakness. 

Lets consider time between last start and Derby along with the average days between their Derby and two prior starts: 

2014: California Chrome — 59 days between last two starts prior to Derby,29.5-day average. 

2013: Orb — 71 days between last two starts prior to Derby with a 35.5-day average. 

2012: I'll Have Another  — 91 days between last two starts prior to Derby, with a 45-day average.

2011: Animal Kingdom  — 65 days between last two starts prior to Derby with a 32.5-day average.

Firing Line or Frosted both had the pattern of the last four Derby winners not Pharoah.

Now, how do these numbers compare to the last three Triple Crown winners?

1978: Affirmed — 34 days between last two starts into Derby, an 17-day average. 

1977: Seattle Slew  — 42 days between the last two starts into Derby, 21-day average.

1973: Secretariat — 28 days between the last two starts into Derby, a 14-day average. 

Now lets consider the three previous Baffert trainees who chased the Triple Crown:

2002: War Emblem — 48 days leading up to Derby,24-day average.

1997: Silver Charm — 48 days leading up toDerby,24-day average. 

1998: Real Quiet  — 49 days leading up to Derby,24-day average.

That trio of Baffert horses went into the Belmont Stakes with comparable average days between prior starts in a three-race pattern going into the Derby — closer to the Triple Crown winners of old. Those horses obviously emerged from the Derby to win the Preakness even though at least that three race pattern would indicate they were less ‘fresh’. Two of those Baffert trainees missed that elusive Triple Crown barely — by a second-place finish. War Emblem the lone flop, stumbled at start and never got into race. All three trained at Churchill Downs between the Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah has some major history in his corner and that is Baffert’s record shipping to the Belmont Stakes from Churchill (3 0-2-0). Those two second-place finishes were also by less than a length…combined. 

American Pharoah is well below the average days in a three-race pattern leading up to Derby as other Triple Crown hopefuls who failed, but ran well other than charismatic: Smarty Jones, a 28-day average and strong second in the Belmont; Charismatic, 14 days and a third-place finish despite a broken ankle; Funny Cide 34-day average and a third-place finish.

Of those three Charismatic was only one of the three falling into the past Triple Crown Winners pattern of success but suffered a brutal injury inside the last furlong.  

Recency — the sharpness of a horse going into the Derby — could be a key to the Triple Crown. Lucien Laurin sharpened Secretariat by not 'letting his foot off the pedal’ and I argue that maintaining that sharpness lies in the the three-race pattern that ends with the Derby. 

"Lucien Laurin love to train, they wanted works, I remember working a lot of horses for him and he wanted to finish, fast,” said former jockey, Rudy Delguidice, who exercised horses for Laurin in 1976. 

Baffert, like Laurin, wants his horses to work. He keeps them sharp. He lets them run.

Baffert has been close twice before. If he wants to stay at Churchill Downs and see if the fourth time is the charm, who's to argue with him? 

“The Churchill surface is consistent and kinder. Pharoah moves great over it and it is much quieter at the barn. Point Given romped from there,” Baffert told me when asked about his decision.

He seems to have his history down pat.