Percentages say try to beat American Pharoah in 2015 Belmont Stakes

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

June 1st, 2015

Thoroughbred racing fans hailing from Generation X, of which I am one, vividly remember when starting as the post-time favorite was anathema to success in the Kentucky Derby. A streak of 20 consecutive favorites, from 1980-99, arguably made us more cynical than we should have been about the positive attributes of Derby favorites.

Those of us that subsequently adopted a "beat the favorite" mindset have paid the price since 2000, as seven of the past 16 Kentucky Derby favorites have won the Run for the Roses, including the last three in succession. That's a success rate of nearly 44 percent during that span, above average compared to the success rate of favorites in all races, which generally hovers in the mid-30s.

American Pharoah will be going for a Triple Crown sweep in Saturday's $1.5 million Belmont Stakes, and will be a heavy favorite to do so. Those of us who follow the sport closely are familiar with the attributes he brings into the 1 1/2-mile race, and those that don't will still buy loads of souvenir tickets regardless.

The question horseplayers must ask themselves on Saturday: Should I pass the race and root for history, or should I try and beat American Pharoah?

Since 1979, when Spectacular Bid began the ignoble tradition of 12 straight losing Triple Crown bids (not including I'll Have Another), favorites have won just six of the 36 runnings of the Belmont. Rounding up, that's a strike rate of only 17 percent.

If you take the Triple Crown contenders out of the equation, the success rate is still only six-for-24 (25 percent), and if you want to expand the sample to the past half-century of Belmonts, the success rate is 13-for-50 (26 percent). Both rates are well below the average rate of success for favorites.

Besides the level of difficulty of winning the Triple Crown, what else might explain the below-average rates of success favorites have had in the Belmont?

There might be numerous factors, but when you come right down to it the Belmont is unique on the American racing calendar. Three-year-olds are being asked to run 1 1/2 miles for virtually the only time in their lives (on dirt anyway), and trying to accurately figure which one is best equipped to handle the distance, while being absolutely sound of mind as well as body, has puzzled generations of horseplayers more so than other significant races.

I have been on both sides of the curve with American Pharoah. I was on the right side as part of the narrow majority that installed him as last year's champion juvenile colt, despite the fact he missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. That race was won emphatically by Texas Red in a performance that nearly secured the championship. As time passes, that selection of American Pharoah looks better and better.

On the flip side, I've been on the wrong side of the curve throughout the Triple Crown season. My dissent has been more half-hearted than dogmatic. My mistake was not in thinking he couldn't win either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, but only that Dortmund was possibly on equal footing under the right circumstances.

I find American Pharoah to be a neat horse, charismatic (no pun intended), and a potentially worthy addition to the list of Triple Crown winners. Believe me, it's been harder to root against him than to root for him in all of his races thus far.

However, the historical percentages of Belmont favorites, below average as much as they are, is hard to ignore. They are so enticing, in fact, that it makes much more sense to try and beat American Pharoah than it is to pass the race.

With whom I will be trying to beat American Pharoah remains unknown at this writing. But the percentages say I have far less to lose than American Pharoah by choosing the route I plan to take on Saturday.