Column: Triple Crown should remain toughest feat in sports

Imagine Usain Bolt having to beat a bunch of well-rested runners in every heat to capture an Olympic gold medal.

Or Serena Williams competing in the French Open final against a rival who didn't bother playing in the quarters or semifinals.

Now you have an idea of what American Pharoah is trying to accomplish in the Belmont Stakes.

That's why the Triple Crown is possibly the toughest feat in sports.

On Saturday, American Pharoah will attempt to become the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.

While the bay colt with the unusually short tail looked unbeatable in his first two victories, there's a reason we've gone so long between Triple Crown winners.

Namely, it's not exactly a fair race.

American Pharoah will be the only horse running in all three events over a five-week period. And the Belmont is longest of them all, a brutally tough 1 1/2-mile trip that's been the downfall of some truly great contenders.

Not that it should be any different, mind you.

This is why the Triple Crown is still a quest that grabs the country's attention in May and June, even while horse racing looks very much like a dying sport the rest of the year.

''It's a tough series,'' Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen said, ''and it's supposed to be.''

Cauthen was aboard Affirmed for the most recent Triple Crown in 1978. His biggest rival was Alydar, who also competed in all three events and was edged at the wire each time. Only three other horses entered the Belmont that year, and one of them - Noon Time Spender - had also raced three weeks earlier in the Preakness.

Compare that with American Pharoah's challengers in this year's eight-horse field.

Tale of Verve sat out the Kentucky Derby before finishing second on a stormy day in the Preakness. Five other horses haven't run since the Kentucky Derby, meaning they're about as rested as they would normally be on the once-a-month racing schedule that most horses follow. Same for Madefromlucky, who skipped the first two Triple Crown events and last raced a month ago (and won) at Belmont Park in the Peter Pan Stakes.

Another indication of what American Pharoah is up against: It's been a full decade since a horse won the Belmont after racing in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Afleet Alex won in 2005 after finishing third in the Kentucky Derby - less than a length behind the winner - and taking first in the Preakness.

''It's a challenge to keep your horse fresh and happy for three races in a matter of five weeks,'' said Doug O'Neill, who trained I'll Have Another during his aborted bid for the Triple Crown three years ago. ''Then you've got new shooters coming at you in the second two legs.''

Bob Baffert, who trains American Pharoah, was asked about having to compete against basically an entire field that didn't run in Baltimore in order to focus on the Belmont.

''I don't blame them,'' Baffert said. ''That part of the Triple Crown doesn't bother me at all.''

Madefromlucky is trying to follow the same path - skip the first two races, race instead in the Peter Pan - that carried Tonalist to victory in last year's Belmont, denying California Chrome the Triple Crown.

After his horse finished in a dead heat for fourth, California Chrome owner Steve Coburn went on an angry tirade about the unfairness of allowing trainers to cherry-pick which events they enter. He said the Belmont should be limited to horses that have raced in the first two Triple Crown events (not going to happen). Or, at the very least, the Preakness and Belmont should only be open to horses that raced in the Kentucky Derby, he added.

''It's all or nothing,'' Coburn said. ''This is not fair to these horses that have been running their guts out for these people and for the people who believe in them. This is the coward's way out.''

Actually, that was just the nonsensical ramblings of a sore loser.

A voice of reason is provided by Penny Chenery, the 93-year-old former owner of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.

''I hope they don't change the format,'' she said. ''I don't think the issue of fresh horses is such a big deal. The trainer knows how to get his horse at the peak for the last challenge. With Secretariat, the more work we threw at him, the stronger he got.''

Now we'll find out if American Pharoah is up to the challenge.

O'Neill believes he will be, comparing him to a baseball pitcher who gets in a zone after pitching four or five innings. No, he's not as fresh as he was at the beginning of the game, but he more than makes up for it with his rhythm and confidence.

''American Pharoah is good enough even with two hard races under his belt to beat the fresher horses,'' O'Neill said. ''I'm pulling for him big-time. I think everyone in the racing industry is pulling for him.''

If he's beaten on Saturday, that will only add to the aura of the Triple Crown.

Nothing wrong with that.

''If you make it too easy,'' Chenery wisely said, ''we'll have more Triple Crown winners and it will lose its validity.''

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Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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AP Racing Writer Beth Harris in New York contributed to this report.

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