Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 17, 2015

High Hopes, Long Odds, And Some Added Incentive

As Yogi said, “it’s deja vu all over again.” For the third time in four years a three-year old thoroughbred has won the first two legs of horse racing’s Triple Crown. As American Pharoah surged in the deep stretch at Pimlico on Saturday, pulling away from the field to win the Preakness Stakes by seven lengths, the hopes of an entire sport surged with him stride for stride. For the fourteenth time since Affirmed last swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978, a horse and jockey will go to the massive mile and a half oval on Long Island in three weeks with a chance at racing immortality.

Perhaps the achingly long drought, now more than half again as lengthy as the 25-year gap between Citation’s triumphant march in 1948 and Secretariat’s run for the ages at Belmont in 1973, will finally end. Even those invested in the other horses who will run against the Derby and Preakness winner on the first Saturday in June will readily acknowledge the boost to racing that a win by American Pharoah would generate. But as good as the horse has looked in turning back a pair of stiff challenges at Churchill Downs and dominating his competition in the slop at Pimlico, the odds of success are much longer than the short money he will fetch at Belmont’s betting windows.

From Sir Barton in 1919 to Affirmed, eleven horses won the Triple Crown, and but for two extended periods in that history the sport enjoyed a champion on a fairly regular basis. In the three decades between the Sir Barton and Citation in 1948, eight horses turned the trick. After Secretariat won in 1973 Seattle Slew followed four years later and Affirmed immediately after that. But there was that quarter century drought between Citation and Secretariat, and when they go to the post for this year’s Belmont Stakes it will be 37 years without a Triple Crown winner. Racing was still a fairly popular sport in the 1950s and 60s, with local tracks making money in many states, so while the lack of a champion was the subject of both discussion and some amount of wonderment, it was not deemed crucial to the sport.

But in the decades since Affirmed and Alydar locked in their historic duel through all three of the Triple Crown races, with the former winning by the ever decreasing margins of a length, a neck, and a nose, horse racing has fallen on hard times. Even as interest in the Triple Crown and a handful of elite races has risen, total betting handle continues to fall. Local tracks have shuttered all around the country. Fans are drifting away from racing and those that remain are increasing in age. Churchill Downs Incorporated, the publicly traded company that owns the venerable home of the Derby as well as three other tracks, makes more money from its casino holdings than from racing.

American Pharoah galloping to victory down the long home stretch at the track known as Big Sandy isn’t going to change those facts. But a Triple Crown champion, especially after so long a period without one and with many horsemen suggesting that modern breeding and training methods make the feat impossible, would give the sport a huge burst of publicity and an identifiable star for fans to follow. In the Derby and the Preakness, the horse looked ready to assume the role.

His first outing as a two-year old was a disaster. He acted up in the paddock before the race and seemed unsettled by the blinkers that trainer Bob Baffert opted to use while finishing in fifth place. Baffert removed the blinkers, stuffed cotton in the horse’s ears, and American Pharoah broke his maiden in his next start with a five length victory. His only other start as a two-year old produced a similarly decisive win, and in two starts as a three-year old at Oaklawn Park he won by even greater margins.

On the first Saturday in May American Pharoah went to the post as the Derby favorite, but the punters liked the looks of undefeated Dortmund and Firing Line as well. Those three ran abreast as the field turned for home, and for the first time in his career American Pharoah was asked to fend off a stiff challenge. Under a hard whip by jockey Victory Espinoza he proved up to the task, edging away to win by a length.

This Saturday he was sent off as the prohibitive favorite, and whatever doubt may have existed surely vanished when the skies over Pimlico opened just as field was readying for the post parade. The sudden and torrential downpour turned the track into a quagmire, and of the three favorites only American Pharoah had ever run or even trained on an off track. This time Espinoza sent his mount quickly to the front, where he raced away from Mr. Z around the first turn. The jockey eased off down the back stretch, making it appear that the other horses were closing. But when asked for more at the top of the stretch American Pharoah responded immediately, pulling away to that seven length triumph.

Those two performances have many pundits stamping American Pharoah as the next great super horse. Perhaps they are correct, and horse racing fans will have reason to rejoice in three weeks. But the Belmont Stakes is known as the Test of the Champion for good reason, because so many have failed it. While eleven horses have captured the Triple Crown, another twenty have gone to the post at the Belmont with the opportunity to do so, only to falter in the grueling 1 ½ mile race (three other winners of the Derby and Preakness, two in the 1930s and I’ll Have Another in 2012, did not run in the Belmont). Twelve of the twenty have failed in the years since Affirmed triumphed.

Perhaps the critics who cite breeding and training methods are right. Perhaps the Belmont distance is too great, or the task of completing three grueling races in five weeks is too demanding. There will always be fresh horses in the field, ones who skipped the Preakness or perhaps both of the earlier Triple Crown races. Those are the horses who have been first under the wire at the Belmont of late.

Or perhaps not. For while the results will ultimately depend on the horses, to the extent that the trainer and jockey play a role, American Pharoah’s connections have added incentive. Three times before Baffert has brought one of his horses to Belmont with a chance at history. Silver Charm failed in 1997, Real Quiet one year later, and War Emblem in 2002. Espinoza was aboard War Emblem, and he was astride California Chrome last June. Trainer and jockey both know what it’s like to come to the Big Sandy and taste bitter defeat. Given another chance and against odds, they’ll do everything they can to fulfill the hopes of an entire sport.

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