ELMONT, N.Y. — At a few minutes before nine on Thursday morning, George Alvarez trudged through the sandy interior of Barn 1 at Belmont Park, and then stopped outside the barren, white-walled tack room in the middle of the building. Alvarez is the regular exercise rider of American Pharoah, the bay colt who won this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and who will try to the end thoroughbred racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought with a victory in the 147th Belmont Stakes on Saturday. Martin Garcia is in the irons for Pharoah’s breezes and Victor Espinoza is the jockey in the colt’s races. But Alvarez rides Pharoah more often than anyone else.
On this cool, almost autumnal morning, Alvarez had taken Pharoah on a 1½-mile gallop around the track’s giant oval, which is often referred to as Big Sandy. Dozens of media and bystanders hugged the railing to watch as Pharoah performed as he usually does—skipping lightly over the ground, his ears pitched forward, moving easily and, because of the efficiency of his stride, at a faster pace than was apparent. Now Alvarez stood in the doorway of the tack room, facing trainer Bob Baffert’s wife, Jill, and the couple’s 10-year-old son, Bode. Alvarez’s saddle and tack were draped over his right arm, his helmet pitched backward on his balding head, sweat rolling down his cheeks despite the 55º temperature.
Alvarez smiled at Jill, shook his head and smiled. “That was tough,” he said. “I mean, really tough. He’s so strong right now.”
This is what we look for, is it not? Some sign to tell us that history is nigh? Some message that says that the stars have aligned and that greatness will soon step forth? Something that can only be felt by the animal and demonstrated in the language of nature? My goodness, Alvarez seemed to be saying, American Pharoah is jumping out of his skin. We will surely see something remarkable Saturday evening at this fabled racetrack.
It was in the spring of 1973 that William Nack, then a reporter at Newsday (and later a senior writer at Sports Illustrated), followed Secretariat’s historic run to the Triple Crown. (Historic not only because Secretariat broke three track records and delivered a Belmont that is widely regarded as the greatest performance in the history of the sport, but also because it had been 25 years since Citation had become the last horse to win the Triple Crown.) Nack wrote a book about that experience, and in 1990, a transcendent feature story for SI.
In his magazine story, Nack described visiting Secretariat’s barn on the morning of the Belmont, and witnessing the following scene as Big Red was taken out for a walk:
[Groom Eddie] Sweat slipped into the stall, put the lead shank on Secretariat and handed it to Charlie Davis, who led the colt to the outdoor walking ring. In a small stable not 30 feet away, pony girl Robin Edelstein knocked a water bucket against the wall. Secretariat, normally a docile colt on a shank, rose up on his hind legs, pawing at the sky, and started walking in circles. Davis cowered below, as if beneath a thunderclap, snatching at the chain and begging the horse to come down. Secretariat floated back to earth. He danced around the ring as if on springs, his nostrils flared and snorting, his eyes rimmed in white.
Unaware of the scene she was causing, Edelstein rattled the bucket again, and Secretariat spun in a circle, bucked and leaped in the air, kicking and spraying cinders along the walls of the pony barn. In a panic Davis tugged at the shank, and the horse went up again, higher and higher, and Davis bent back, yelling, “Come on down! Come on down!”
I stood in awe. I had never seen a horse so fit. The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat. I had no idea what to expect that day in the Belmont, with him going a mile and a half, but I sensed we would see more of him than we had ever seen before.
Nack had the benefit of recreating this scene with the knowledge of Secretariat’s performance safely in hand. But still: In the ensuing years, we have looked increasingly for similar signs that something remarkable will happen on a June Saturday at Belmont Park, something to evoke the image of Secretariat running into history. (And as an aside, racing would do well to loosen its grip on Secretariat’s Belmont ever so slightly, and let the present breathe outside its shadow. At this point, nobody is catching Big Red; and another Big Red is also not walking through the door. We let go of Jordan, Gretzky and Montana and let their successors thrive. Just a thought.)
Racehorses speak to us with their actions and through the interpretations of their human handlers. The three-week interval between the Preakness and a Triple Crown attempt in the Belmont Stakes is interminable. A horse with a shot at the Triple Crown becomes a one-man team, playing no games and practicing alone. In his every action, we look for messages—every minute of every day. On Thursday morning, a crowd of more than 100 media and others surrounded a rectangle of earth outside Pharoah’s barn ... to watch him get a bath. There is no message in a bath. Yet there was that crowd, looking for something.
This is what American Pharoah has done since rolling to an easy, seven-length victory on May 16 in the slop at Pimlico: He has breezed (horse racing terminology for a nearly full-speed conditioning workout) twice and galloped (a slower-paced effort) nearly every other day. All of his works have been sensational. He moves beautifully and swiftly, and always has. “There’s no doubt he’s a really, really good horse,” says trainer Todd Pletcher, who will send out two horses to try to beat Pharoah on Saturday. “He moves in that way you only see from the great ones.” There is little evidence that the grind of his extraordinarily taxing schedule—he’s run three races in five weeks (the Arkansas Derby came three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness two weeks after that)—has robbed him of any of his powers.
However. To repeat: However.
It was a year ago that California Chrome swept the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness convincingly and came to the Belmont with every bit as much hope as Pharoah. People stood to watch him get bathed, too. Four days before the Belmont, Alan Sherman, who supervised Chrome’s training for his father, Art Sherman, told the media this: “He gained weight from the Derby to the Preakness, and from the Preakness to the Belmont this week, he’s gained more weight. He measured 71 inches [in girth] after the Derby, and now he’s 73 inches. He’s just getting stronger and stronger.” No doubt, all of this was true, and it was reason to believe that Chrome hadn’t been worn down by the work required to arrive at the cusp of history.
But Chrome broke haltingly out of the gate that day, was stepped on by another horse and never found his best run. He finished in a dead heat for fourth place. On Wednesday morning at the Belmont post-position draw in New York, I asked Espinoza what he remembered about that loss (which, incidentally, he says he has never watched). “My horse wasn’t the same,” he said. “I could feel it when I was warming him up before the race and I remember thinking, ‘Well, maybe when the race starts he’ll be better.’ But he wasn’t. The usual California Chrome, he would have bounced right out of the gate and never would have gotten stepped on by that other horse. Then he just didn’t feel right. I had no options.”
Maybe Alan Sherman really believed that Chrome was thriving. Or maybe not, because mighty rare is the trainer who will say on the eve of a big race, My horse just isn’t right, even if he knows it. Either way, the trainer can’t really know.
Sherman is just one example. Four days before the 2012 Belmont, I stood in the shade of a barn with Doug O’Neill, who trained I’ll Have Another to victories in the Derby and the Preakness. “He’s doing unbelievable,” O’Neill told me that afternoon. Three days later I’ll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont with an injury and remains the only one of the 13 horses who have won the Derby and the Preakness since the last Triple Crown in 1978 to not even make it into Belmont starting gate.
Here is the reality: Nobody knows exactly how American Pharoah will run on Saturday, or if any performance will be good enough to win the race and finally, mercifully, lock down a Triple Crown. In the last 19 years, Derby-Preakness winners have come to Belmont and run brilliantly, only to lose by narrow margins (Silver Charm and Real Quiet, both trained by Baffert). They have run well, only to be undone by racing tactics (Smarty Jones). And they have come up short (Funny Cide), shorter (War Emblem, Baffert again) and way, way, short (Big Brown). The Belmont is a mystery. It is 1½ miles, farther than any of these horses have run or will ever run again. It comes up just as the Derby and the Preakness winner is growing tired, and as other 3-year-olds are maturing.
Baffert, who knows more about almost winning the Triple Crown than any trainer in history, stood in the Barn 1 tack room yesterday and repeated a form of what he has been saying for three weeks. “We’re not going to know until the race,” he said. “He looks good. Maybe he would have a little more weight if he hadn’t run all those races. But he looks great and he feels strong.” There’s no further message that Pharoah can send before that three-eighths pole, and that includes rearing up on his hind legs on Saturday morning and dancing in a circle because somebody kicked over a water bucket. We still won’t know.
He will have solid competition. Despite the defections that have reduced a potential field of 12 horses to just eight, at least three challengers loom as dangerous threats to win the race. Before the Kentucky Derby the Pletcher-trained Materiality attracted a lot of noisy buzz despite the fact that he had made just three career starts, none of them as a 2-year-old. He was bounced around badly in Louisvillie before rallying gamely and finishing sixth. Frosted, who won the Wood Memorial, was a fast-closing fourth in the Derby. Both horses skipped the Preakness, a tactic which has been a reliable path to Belmont success in recent years.
Pletcher’s second Belmont starter, Madefromlucky, finished nine lengths behind Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby on April 11, but bounced back to win the Peter Pan Stakes, a traditional Belmont Stakes prep, on May 9. There will also be sporadic betting support on Saturday for the likes of Mubtaahij, the United Arab Emirates Derby winner, who was eighth in the Kentucky Derby, and Tale of Verve, who clunked up to take second in the Preakness.
Outside of his rivals, there is no obvious tactical hurdle for American Pharoah to surmount. From the No. 5 post position, Espinoza should have no trouble securing a position on or near the lead. (It’s easy to imagine Madefromlucky or Materiality contesting.) “Get him out of there, get into things,” said Baffert on Thursday. When the field rounds the clubhouse turn into the endless Belmont backstretch—where Secretariat blew things open (sorry, another reference), where Ruffian broke down and where Affirmed and Alydar fell in alongside each other for a stirring six-furlong battle to the finish line—American Pharoah should be firmly in control of the race, and his fate.
Does he gallop the field into exhaustion and run into history? Does he battle gamely and win at the wire, holding off fresher horses with his talent and his toughness? Or does he reach the three-eighths pole and find that his spring is over, as the drought is extended for another year. There are no answers. There are no signs. There is a Triple Crown Belmont. Nobody knows until Saturday.