BY EARLY LAST Saturday evening at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, the rain had finally begun to subside and the lightning had moved east over Chesapeake Bay. A record crowd of 131,680 that had celebrated American Pharoah's victory in the 140th Preakness poured into the streets surrounding the ancient track. Meanwhile, another storm had already begun to form 221 miles to the north, at Belmont Park, where on June 6, American Pharoah will attempt to become the 12th winner of racing's Triple Crown and the first in 37 years.
At a victory press conference in a tent on the muddy Pimlico infield, American Pharoah's trainer, Bob Baffert, said, "I know everybody is sharpening their knives, getting ready."
The lack of a Triple Crown winner has haunted racing for more than three decades. The last horse to achieve the feat was Affirmed in 1978, and he was the third Triple Crown winner in the 1970s (after Secretariat in '73 and Seattle Slew in '77). Since then 13 horses before American Pharoah won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and 12 of them failed in the Belmont Stakes. (In 2012, I'll Have Another was injured and scratched on the eve of the Belmont.) American Pharoah is the third horse in four years to win the Derby and the Preakness, and the 10th in the last 18 years, four of them trained by Baffert.
This chase has taken on a sort of misplaced desperation, as many fans and racing media insist that a Triple Crown victory will elevate racing from its niche position on the sports landscape and somehow restore it to its mainstream station of yore. This is wildly unlikely, yet it gives the sport's fan base a grail to seek. Which brings us to American Pharoah, the Belmont Stakes and Steve Coburn, whom you may have forgotten.
A year ago Coburn was—and still is—the minority owner of California Chrome, the popular colt who won the Derby and the Preakness just as impressively as American Pharoah and then was beaten in the Belmont by Tonalist, who had run neither the Derby nor the Preakness, due to a winter illness. Coburn accused Tonalist's owners of taking "the coward's way out" and ambushing his tired horse. Coburn's rant gained traction in the media, though he later apologized.
That topic will arise again in the coming weeks. Baffert's reference to knives being sharpened was in regard to the long list of horses expected for the Belmont who sat out the Preakness (and some who sat out the Derby). Most prominent among those are Materiality, a talented, lightly raced colt who finished sixth in the Derby despite a horrific trip but was rested for the Preakness by trainer Todd Pletcher; and Frosted, the fourth-place finisher in the Derby. With five weeks' rest both are in terrific position to challenge American Pharoah, whom Baffert is aware will at some point begin to show the effects of the Triple Crown grind. (For this reason some racing officials have suggested expanded spacing between the Triple Crown races. After the Derby, Baffert said simply, "Don't change it.")
Coburn's argument resonated with casual fans and media interlopers for whom the Belmont is a one-time racetrack appearance. And it's true that the last five Triple Crown--attempt Belmonts have been won by horses that did not run in the Preakness.
But the argument is senseless. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes are separate events operated by separate business entities, each a Super Bowl--type occasion on its own. The "Triple Crown" is just a title coined by a sportswriter nearly a century ago. Additionally, 3-year-old horses develop at different rates. Some aren't ready to race in the early spring, when Derby prep races take place, but are more ready in June. That is the reality.
Don't expect Baffert or American Pharoah's owner, Ahmed Zayat, to seek cover from the task awaiting them in New York. The day after the Preakness, Zayat was asked by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED if he was O.K. with running against fresh horses. "Of course, bring it on," said Zayat. "A sport needs to have stars. A sport without stars is no sport. He needs to earn it."
Built for Speed
Faces in the Crowd
The Case for
In 1973, Secretariat clinched the Triple Crown with a record-setting time of 2:24 in the Belmont. Between '74 and 2014, 15 horses had a shot at the crown. Only two won the Belmont—and none came close to Secretariat's blistering run.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
1[superscript st] 2[superscript nd] 3[superscript rd] 4[superscript th] 8[superscript th]
Big Brown 2008 (did not finish)
I'll Have Another 2012 (scratched)
Seattle Slew 1977
Spectacular Bid 1979
Pleasant Colony 1981
Sunday Silence 1989
Silver Charm 1997
Real Quiet 1998
War Emblem 2002
Funny Cide 2003
Smarty Jones 2004
California Chrome 2014