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May 29, 2015

Up the Backstretch: Triple Crown is American Pharoah's to lose

By: By Don Agriss, Horse Racing Editor

 Philadelphia, PA ( - Since Affirmed last won racing's Triple Crown in 1978, we have seen 13 3-year-olds fail to complete the sweep by losing the Belmont Stakes.

The defeats range from Real Quiet's nose loss to Victory Gallop in 1998 to Big Brown's failure in 2008 to even finish the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion."

Now a 14th thoroughbred, American Pharoah, has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Sakes and will be the heavy favorite on June 6 to close out what has become the most difficult sports feat in the world.

As recently as last year, the horse coming into the final race of the Triple Crown is the overwhelming selection to win the Belmont Stakes. California Chrome went off as the 4-5 favorite, but didn't sustain his invincibility in the biggest race of his career.

The 147th Belmont Stakes is all American Pharoah. The colt, trained by Bob Baffert, is being given every compliment in the book approaching his opportunity to gain true racing immortality.

The last jockey to sweep the Triple Crown, Steve Cauthen, is one of those heaping praise on American Pharoah.

"He does appear to be just a really top-class horse. He's an excellent mover, you know, beautiful confirmation, and he obviously has always been that," Cauthen said. "He was the 2-year-old champion. So, you know, I think he's going to the Belmont with a team that's been there before; it's nothing new for them."

Baffert has had three prior chances to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). Cauthen believes the Hall of Fame trainer has learned from those failures.

"I think Bob's kind of backed off, you know, taking it easy and kind of training him lightly trying to keep his energy up, you know, so he's all ready for the Belmont," Cauthen explained, "and we'll find out if he's the real deal, if he can do the mile and a half, I guess is really the question. He's obviously the real deal. He's the best 3-year-old at this point, but the thing - the reason they call this the Test of Champions, you know, it's a mile and a half and it's always a test, and there's some nice horses that will be testing him."

Billy Turner trained Seattle Slew to the 1977 Triple Crown and happens to be the only living trainer around to have done so. He also has the belief that American Pharoah is headed toward victory.

"Well, I think it's perfect for him myself," Turner noted. "I just think that the way he ran in the Preakness, and he did it with such ease and he was striding so easily the last part of it, that race didn't seem to take anything out of him, and I just think he'd be coming up to this race perfectly."

Owned by Zayat Stables, American Pharoah has been at Churchill Downs since the Preakness. He's been jogging and galloping with one timed workout since posting an eight-length win in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

"American Pharoah seems to have a very fluid, easy stride, and doesn't seem to have any weakness to overcome," stated Penny Chenery, owner of 1973 Triple Crown champ Secretariat, "so it's a question of whether he can deal with the shortened rotation of these races. We don't train horses to do that these days. It's unusual, and we'll just see if he can master his mind around it and do it again."

Nine horse are being readied for the Belmont Stakes and the chance to prolong this Triple Crown drought. American Pharoah is the best 3-year-old in the country and will be the best one in the Belmont.

Jockey Victor Espinoza has the 2002 experience with War Emblem to fall back on. The rider rode to a win in the Kentucky Derby and knew exactly the right way to handle the slop in claiming the Preakness.

It's now basically up to American Pharoah to go ahead and run the race of his life.

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