American Pharoah will attempt to win horse racing’s Triple Crown Saturday at the Belmont Stakes, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Affirmed in 1978.
Many horses have come close in recent memory – winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before faltering in the mile-and-a-half Belmont. In fact, six horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown since 2002 and then either withdrew or lost in the Belmont.
But Pharoah is more accomplished already in his career than any of those horses were before the Belmont Stakes, making Pharoah a unique favorite entering the weekend.
The case for why Pharoah can’t or won’t win has been well established.
A recent Wired headline read “Science says American Pharoah won’t win the Triple Crown.”
The lack of recovery time, author Lexi Pandell argues, will be working very much against the favorite.
Post-race recovery is no joke for a thousand-pound animal that can run more than 40 miles per hour. There are two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness, and three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont. That tight schedule—and the super-specific needs of racehorses—means horses competing in the grueling back-to-back-to-back Triple Crown races have a big disadvantage against fresh horses. This Saturday, another horse will face the same challenge that [California] Chrome did. American Pharoah won the Derby. He won the Preakness. Now, he’ll have a shot at claiming the biggest title in racing (with the same jockey who rode Chrome, no less). But he will be competing against several horses that skipped earlier races—and dealing with the physiology and biochemistry involved in equine race recovery.
A story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal made a similar, equally compelling case.
But there are compelling reasons to believe in American Pharoah, too.
For starters, the added length of the race may seem like a breeze for Pharoah after winning the Preakness by seven lengths. He distanced himself down the home stretch and showed no signs of stopping after running 1 3/16 miles in the slop at Pimlico.
And while it seems recent history is working against Pharoah, he actually has some critical history working very much in his favor.
Pharoah has made seven career starts and won the last six – all stakes races — after finishing fifth in his debut race at Del Mar last August. His success last year earned him the Eclipse Award for the champion 2-year-old male.
Since 1941, the year Whirlaway won the Triple Crown, 12 champion 2-year-olds have gone on to win the Kentucky Derby, including Pharoah.
Of the 11 that came before him, seven went on to win the Preakness. Of those seven, six became Triple Crown winners — Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
Pharoah has more in common with these horses than he does with those who came so close in the last decade-plus. He’s always been great, which puts him in rare company from the start.
After Saturday, he’ll be in even rarer company.