To win the first Triple Crown in 37 years, American Pharoah must beat fresh horses in the Belmont Stakes. He has the talent, but nobody knows if he has enough energy left in the tank.
ELMONT, N.Y. — It was a few days less than a year ago when California Chrome, an inexplicably fast horse with four white feet and very quirky owners, failed to become the 12th winner of racing’s Triple Crown and instead became the 13th horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and fail to win the Belmont Stakes. (One of the 12, I’ll Have Another, didn’t run in the 2012 Belmont—and I’m tired of writing about him in parentheses.) Chrome, bloodied above one hoof from a mishap leaving the starting gate, and worn down by the five-week grind of the Crown, finished in a dead heat for fourth place, just a couple of lengths behind the winner. It was a more than respectable performance that nonetheless left a crowd north of 100,000 gutted. Again.
None of the three horses who finished in front of California Chrome that afternoon had run three weeks earlier in the Preakness. Neither the winner, Tonalist, nor the second-place finisher, Commissioner, had run in either the Derby or the Preakness. This circumstance prompted a memorable post-race tirade from Steve Coburn, Chrome’s minority owner, who argued on NBC that so-called fresh horses entered in the Belmont had an unfair advantage over horses that had run in the Derby and the Preakness, and that Tonalist’s connections had taken “the coward’s way out.”
Coburn’s rant, for which he apologized the next morning, struck a nerve. Drive-by media and fans (which, where horse racing is concerned, means most media and fans) bought into the notion of inequity on some level. It’s a specious argument, because the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont are three distinct events, each hugely important on their own. The Triple Crown was the creation of early 20th-century sportswriters; the races were never intended to make up a series. But fresh horses, that’s another story. Fresh horses are as much a part of the Belmont Stakes as the daunting distance of 1½ miles.
Each of racing’s 11 Triple Crown champions defeated fresh horses in the Belmont Stakes. The sport has changed dramatically in the 96 years since Sir Barton became the first to sweep the three races in 1919, but that detail has been constant. Six of the 11 were the only horse to run all three Triple Crown races. The last six horses whose Triple Crown attempts ended with defeats in the Belmont Stakes were beaten by fresh horses. Those defeats occurred in a wide variety of ways (Charismatic was breaking down in the stretch, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate, Big Brown never did finish, and so on), but fresh winners remains the constant.
Now a very similar scenario is in place. The gifted American Pharoah has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and stands where California Chrome stood a year ago. And to break the 37-year Triple Crown drought, Pharoah will have to beat seven horses, none of whom ran in both the Derby and the Preakness and only one, Tale of Verve, who ran in the Preakness. American Pharoah will be running for the fourth time in eight weeks. Two of the horses expected to be solid challengers (Frosted and Materiality) ran in the Derby and have not run since. Both are running their third race in nine weeks. Madefromlucky, another serious threat—who won the Peter Pan Stakes on May 9—will be running for the third time in eight weeks. All are far more rested than American Pharoah. That part of Coburn’s rant has veracity.
But how much of a factor is it in winning a race of 1½ miles, or any race at all? Like so many issues involved in training a creature who can only respond with actions and not with words, it’s all very imprecise, a mix of experience, intuition and common sense. “It’s an inexact science,” says trainer Todd Pletcher. “Instinct, gut reaction.”
Pletcher, who has won more money than any trainer in history, has been a major player in this year’s Triple Crown without having won a race. He started three horses in the Derby (five of his 3-year-olds were eligible); Materiality, who came in sixth after a rugged trip, was his best finisher. Pletcher then opted, as he usually does, to bypass the Preakness to rest his best horses for the Belmont, which he has won twice, with filly Rags to Riches in 2007 and with Palace Malice in ’13 (neither ran in the Preakness).
Pletcher says that he nearly decided to run Materiality in the Preakness. The colt had started just three times before the Derby and had not run at all as a 2-year-old, which is a recipe for Derby failure. And even though Materiality finished a willing sixth in Kentucky, Pletcher opted for the extra rest. “For us, three weeks rest has been very different from two weeks rest,” he says. “Sometimes you think they’re ready after two weeks, and then they just don’t deliver their best performance at the top of the lane.
“The best comparison I can make is with a Major League Baseball pitcher,” says Pletcher. “A lot of them give you much more consistent performances with five days rest than with four.” (To critics who knock him for skipping the second leg of the Triple Crown, Pletcher says, “When it comes to the Preakness, you could make the argument that we made that an easier race by not running.” That will annoy some fans, but it’s a fair point.)
Kiaran McLaughlin, another top-level trainer, who won the 2006 Belmont with Jazil (who skipped the Preakness after finishing fourth in the Derby), is sending out Frosted to knock off American Pharoah in the Belmont. Frosted won the Wood Memorial in April and finished a driving fourth in the Derby despite running five-wide during parts of the race. McLaughlin held Jazil out of the Preakness in favor of getting extra rest. “Here’s what I know,” says McLaughlin. “Horses are not machines. You can’t keep running them out there every few weeks. Three races in five weeks, which is what American Pharoah is doing, is very demanding at the top level of racing. We’re very happy that we’ve been sitting here in our barn since the day after the Kentucky Derby.”
The other side of this equation is equally important. Possibly more important. “I don’t pay attention to the other horses,” says Bob Baffert, who trains American Pharoah. “I’m just trying to get my horse [to Belmont] in top shape.”
Pharoah’s first two wins in 2015, both at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, were very easy. His Derby win—in which jockey Victor Espinoza struck him 32 times with his whip while grinding down Firing Line and Dortmund in the Churchill Downs homestretch—was hard work. It was also quite possibly the tough race that American Pharoah needed to become more fit and more competitive. Or it was the effort that planted the seeds of fatigue that will get him beat in the Belmont. Nobody knows. Pharoah waltzed home by seven lengths in the Pimlico slop.
His two subsequent workouts at Churchill Downs have been works of equine art, with the colt betraying no signs of fatigue or disinterest. Pletcher floats one theory: “In American Pharoah’s case, because he’s so good in the slop, it’s possible the Preakness wasn’t even very taxing for him. And Bob has done an incredible job training the horse.”
McLaughln says, “The mile and a half is a huge factor. We don’t know if any of them can go that far.”
What makes many think that Pharoah can achieve the distance (a distance that few American racehorses will run in their lifetime) is his stride, which is both light and powerful. “The way he drives his hind legs up underneath him, and them stretches out in front,” says Pletcher, “is something you only see in really great horses.” There are multiple factors that enable a horse—or any living creature—to run fast for a extended period of time (the Belmont will take nearly two-and-a-half minutes). One of those factors is aerobic capacity, but another is efficiency of movement. American Pharoah moves with breathtaking efficiency. His stride is swift and fluid, low to the earth and powerful, with minimal time spent in the air. Human comparisons: Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson ran like this, as did Jesse Owens.
Ten days after the Preakness, Baffert was sitting in his small office on the Churchill Downs backstretch. He is one of the most successful big-race trainers in the history of the sport, with 11 wins in Triple Crown races (including the 2001 Belmont with Point Given) and 10 wins in the Breeders’ Cup. He has put his hands on dozens of exquisitely talented horses. I asked him to compare Pharoah’s stride to some other of his great horses and Baffert shot back, quickly, “I’ve never had a horse that moves like him.”
American Pharoah is eventually going to get tired. Baffert knows this, he just doesn’t know exactly when it’s going to happen. “We’re not really going to know whether he’s ready to do this until he gets to the three-eighths pole [three furlongs from the finish] in the Belmont,” says Baffert. “He might be fine right up until then.” And only then will we know if he needed the rest.