By Kevin Martin
For the 14th time since the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, we enter Belmont Stakes week with another chance at the elusive sweep. On Saturday in New York, American Pharoah will become the 12th Triple Crown winner or just another addition to the longer and lesser known list of talented colts that won two out of the three races.
American Pharoah's jockey Victor Espinoza will have fresh memories of his failed Triple Crown attempt at last year's Belmont aboard California Chrome and old memories of War Emblem, his mount in 2003, who stumbled at the start and finished fourth in his bid. Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert also trained War Emblem and two other colts - Silver Charm and Real Quiet - who came excruciatingly close to winning the Triple Crown in 1997 and 1998. Both ran second. Real Quiet held a clear lead in the stretch before losing a photo finish to Victory Gallop. Espinoza and Baffert are veterans of Triple Crown heartache
American Pharoah is the best colt to enter the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes since Smarty Jones in 2004. In fact, a strong case could be made that he is the most accomplished Triple Crown possibility headed to Belmont this century. He vaulted to the top of his class in his front running win on a sloppy racetrack in the Preakness following his win off the pace against a field of eighteen rivals in the Kentucky Derby. In spite of its long distance, the Belmont Stakes favors colts that can run close to the lead, an advantage for the speedy American Pharoah. He is likely to face just seven other horses on Saturday after two potential starters withdrew early this week, including the graded stakes winner Carpe Diem.
All seems to be in American Pharoah's favor, but as we have seen so many times Triple Crown bubbles tend to burst at the Belmont. He will be running against a rested group of contenders with his main rivals exiting the Kentucky Derby after skipping the Preakness. The Belmont Stakes is the longest of the three races and the toughest for colts that run in both preceding legs of the Triple Crown. The added distance of the Belmont, on top of the grueling schedule leading up to the final leg in New York, is why a sweep is among the toughest feats in sports. American Pharoah has the resume, pedigree, talent, and human connections to finally break the Triple Crown drought, but no one should be surprised if he ends up on the long list of near misses by Saturday evening.
Frosted is the biggest threat to upset this year's Triple Crown attempt. After an awkward start in the Kentucky Derby, he ran towards the back of the pack while racing wide around the first turn. He only had three horses beaten as the leaders entered the far turn but made a tremendous run around the turn and held fifth place as he hit the stretch. He nearly beat Dortmund for third but settled for fourth just three lengths from American Pharoah. He is a talented colt that has had some bad luck during his three-year-old campaign. With a better start in the Kentucky Derby, it's not far fetched to think that he could be racing for the Triple Crown sweep this weekend. He has the services of jockey Joel Rosario, who won the Belmont last year aboard Tonalist.
Materiality is another potential upsetter. Like Frosted, he had a difficult trip in the Derby, but finished a hard-fought and respectable sixth, passing more than half the field in the final quarter mile. The Derby was just his fourth career start and the first time he raced behind horses after running on or near the lead in prior races. He will likely get back to his preference for running close to the pace in the Belmont and it would come as no surprise should he and American Pharoah lead the way on the backstretch. His sire Afleet Alex won the Belmont Stakes in 2008 and his trainer, Todd Pletcher, has saddled two winners in the race.
Mubtaahij exits the Kentucky Derby where he finished an uninspired eighth. Bred in England, this year's UAE Derby winner has an abundance of distance influences in his pedigree. While his bloodlines are there, the question remains if he is good enough to run with the likes of American Pharoah. His odds could exceed 15-1 making him a great value bet for those willing to forgive his lackluster run at Churchill Downs and believe he will improve in his second U.S. start.
Others exiting the Derby include Keen Ice and Frammento who finished seventh and eleventh. Both colts have each won just a single race in their careers and have never finished better than third in a graded stakes. They aren't fast but run a steady pace - horses with this running style are sometimes called "plodders." This running style can find success in long distance races like the Belmont Stakes. While they would be shocking winners, they might be solid plays underneath in the trifecta and superfecta.
Tale of Verve is the only colt besides American Pharoah in this year's Belmont that ran in the Preakness. He shocked everyone with a second place finish after many questioned whether he belonged in the race at all. He ran far back early and passed all of the field but one in the stretch to finish a distant seven lengths behind American Pharoah. It's hard to gauge that performance considering the deluge that hit Baltimore just before the Preakness. Barring another colossal rain storm and a torrid pace - both unlikely - a repeat of his run from three weeks ago seems doubtful.
Madefromlucky rounds out the expected field of eight contenders. He did not run in either of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He has three wins from eight career races including a victory in his most recent start in the Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park. He finished six lengths and nine lengths behind American Pharoah in their two meetings at Oaklawn Park earlier this year. He will be a longshot for trainer Todd Pletcher, but can't be counted out considering five of the last eight Belmont winners did not compete in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes.
The Belmont Stakes will headline a huge day of racing at the historic track in Elmont, New York with a packed undercard that includes nine stakes races. Postime for the 2015 Belmont Stakes is 6:40 Eastern.
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