NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — All that separates American Pharoah from ending the longest drought in horse racing history — 37 years without a Triple Crown winner — is 1 1/2 miles and seven rivals determined to make him earn a victory in the Belmont Stakes.
Twelve horses before him have tried to complete the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont and failed since 1978. Now it's American Pharoah's turn Saturday.
The bay colt with the unusually short tail appears to have come through the Derby and Preakness with energy to spare, and he'll need it in the longest and most grueling of the three-race series.
American Pharoah galloped around the big Belmont oval Thursday before visiting the paddock where he will be saddled on race day. He will take to the track again Friday for his final tuneup. He is the heavy 3-5 early favorite.
Before Affirmed swept the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, 25 years had passed between Triple Crown winners Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. Now it's 37 years, with a chance for American Pharoah to make history and goose the struggling sport or become just another miss.
"There's a lot of anxiety," said Bob Baffert, the only trainer to lose the Belmont three times with horses that had won the first two legs. "I don't even think about the history."
American Pharoah and seven rivals will run the longest race of their lives Saturday. If there's rain in the forecast, give the edge to American Pharoah, who romped to a seven-length win in the Preakness after a massive downpour occurred as the horses were going to the starting gate.
The colt's grand-sire, Empire Maker, won the 2003 Belmont, spoiling Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid.
This time, the competition seems committed to sticking closer to American Pharoah, whose preferred running style is at the front, although he's shown he can sit off the early pace and win. How many of the horses press the early pace will determine who has enough gas left for the 1,097-yard run down the stretch.
"I want him to break cleanly and freely," Baffert said, "and have Victor put him in the mode where he's comfortable. I'm sure they're all going to be pretty close together."
Just as horses aren't used to running 1 1/2 miles, jockeys aren't used to riding races that long, either. The Belmont has undone some who have moved too soon and burned out their horses. Others have moved too late and let the leaders get away.
The track's deep, sandy surface can prove tiring to run on, the turns are sweeping, and the poles used by jockeys to judge their location are placed differently than at the mile tracks where most of them ride.
American Pharoah's California-based jockey, Victor Espinoza, has experience in the Belmont, having lost two other Triple tries, with California Chrome last year and War Emblem in 2002.
"If he's happy, it's all going to be easy," Espinoza said. "If he's not happy, you're going to force things and he's not ready to do it."
American Pharoah will be the only horse to run in all three Triple Crown races this year. Five of his rivals already lost to him in the Derby, one was beaten by him in the Preakness, while another is new to the series.
Madefromlucky, who along with Materiality are trainer Todd Pletcher's two entries, has trained and won at Belmont Park.
How American Pharoah handles the extra quarter-mile in the Belmont will be crucial to his chances
"If American Pharoah can get a mile and a half on Saturday, all of our hats will be off to him," said Jerry Crawford, who owns 20-1 shot Keen Ice. "But it's our job to do what we can to make the race honest."
Materiality, who finished sixth in the Derby and is the early 6-1 third choice, figures to go to the lead out of the No. 8 post. American Pharoah, who drew the No. 5 post, will likely be tracking him heading into the first turn. Frosted, the early 5-1 second choice, will probably be anywhere from third to sixth in the early going.
"We hope people are booing us after the race," said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Frosted. "We don't mind a Triple Crown winner, just not this year."
Luck — either good or bad — plays a role in the Belmont, too.
Real Quiet was on the wrong end of the spectrum in 1998, when a nose separated him and Baffert from racing immortality, a tough beat that haunts the trainer to this day.
"One-and-a-half miles is the biggest issue," Baffert said. "It's a test of greatness and he'll let us know."
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