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Jun 05, 2015

History not on American Pharoah's side in Belmont Stakes

By: By Jeff Frank, The Sports Analyst


 Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It has been 37 years since Affirmed last won horse racing's Triple Crown. Seven colts and the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes are the only barriers facing American Pharoah in his quest for immortality.

The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner looks to become the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first since 1978 if he can outperform his competition on Saturday. However, 12 other horses in this very position over the last 36 years have failed in the final leg - the Belmont Stakes.

The first among that group was Spectacular Bid, a colt almost everyone expected to win the 1979 Triple Crown as he was sent off as the 3-10 favorite in the "Test of the Champion." As is the case with American Pharoah, Spectacular Bid had seven rivals to overcome. Unfortunately, jockey Ronnie Franklin chased 85-1 shot Gallant Best for the early lead and the "Bid" faltered late and finished third.

The most recent among the group was California Chrome last year. The free- wheeling horse also was compromised by a fatal jockey error as Victor Espinoza kept "Chromie" on the inside part of the track, a spot the horse did not particularly enjoy. California Chrome wound up out of the money as the 4-5 favorite, setting up a $6,781 trifecta.

In between, six other colts and geldings - Pleasant Colony (4-5 in 1981), Alysheba (4-5 in 1987), Sunday Silence (9-10 in 1989), Real Quiet (4-5 in 1998), Smarty Jones (3-10 in 2004) and Big Brown (3-10 in 2008) - were odds-on to sweep the Triple Crown only to fail in the final leg. And only three of those eight odds-on horses finished second - Sunday Silence, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones.

There have been 12 horses overall since 1979 to have a chance to win the Triple Crown. Silver Charm was even-money in the 1997 Belmont Stakes, Charismatic was 8-5 in 1999, War Emblem was 6-5 in 2002 and Funny Cide was even-money in 2003. Among those four, only Silver Charm finished second.

Field size has had a lot to do with the ability to succeed in the Belmont Stakes. The 11 Triple Crown winners faced 40 other rivals. That comes to an average of 4.6 horses per race. Only twice were there more than seven horses in the Belmont.

On the other hand, the 12 horses that failed to win the Triple Crown since 1979 faced 102 challengers. That comes to an average of 9.5 horses per race. Only twice were there fewer than eight horses in the Belmont.

Not only will American Pharoah have to deal with his competition, but he also must carry his speed over 12 furlongs. None of the eight runners in the field have tackled this treacherous 1 1/2-mile distance, but some are better bred to handle it than others.

American Pharoah has shown the ability to win at 1 1/4 miles (or 10 furlongs), a feat none of the other entrants can claim. The main question for the expected heavy favorite is: Will the extra two furlongs prevent him from joining the illustrious group of Triple Crown winners?

His sire, Pioneerof The Nile, ran second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and that horse's sire, Empire Maker, won the 2003 Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah's dam side is geared toward sprinters, but that fact has not held him back on his quest for stardom.

The expected lack of early challengers on Saturday should help American Pharoah manage his speed during the race. Unlike what took place 11 years ago when Smarty Jones was ganged-up on for much of the early going, American Pharoah only has to worry about one other horse (Materiality) on the front end as almost half the field is made up of closers.

Will American Pharoah have enough heart and guts to fight with Materiality early and then stave off Frosted, and maybe others, inside the final furlong? More than likely, the answer is yes. However, history says no.

THE OTHER TOP CONTENDERS

Both Frosted and Materiality sat on the sideline while American Pharoah took down the Preakness Stakes at Baltimore on May 16. The two colts were beaten by 3 1/4 lengths and 7 3/4 lengths, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby.

Frosted did not have any excuses outside of having to come from far back on a track favoring speed. Materiality's race ended at the start after he broke poorly from the gate. The lightly raced horse also had just about the entire field in front of him entering the stretch and was good enough to pass the majority of them at the wire.

Materiality's pedigree is similar to American Pharoah's. His sire, Afleet Alex, is a Belmont Stakes winner, while his female side is geared toward speed.

As far as Frosted's breeding is concerned, he's by Tapit, who sired last year's Belmont Stakes winner, Tonalist. Tapit's sire was Pulpit, who was sired by another Belmont Stakes winner in A.P. Indy, who was sired by another Belmont winner in Seattle Slew. Frosted's dam side also is impressive as it traces back to the likes of Roberto and Prince John.

Based on pedigree, Frosted gets the nod over Materiality.

Mubtaahij is another colt coming over from the Kentucky Derby after staying home for the Preakness. The Irish-bred was a non-factor at Churchill Downs with an eighth-place finish. The Kentucky Derby was his third race at 1 3/16 miles or longer in eight weeks.

Can Mubtaahij return to the form he displayed in Dubai? With a five-week break since the Derby, there is a chance the public could see the real Mubtaahij. Or maybe he just is not as fast as the top American colts and the horses he defeated in the desert are not comparable to those running in the states.

Madefromlucky is trying to take the same route Tonalist used last year and that is to tack on a Belmont Stakes victory to the Peter Pan Stakes. Both horses won the local stakes prep by finishing the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan in 1:48 1/5.

However, Tonalist crushed second-place finisher Commissioner by four lengths and it was more than two lengths back to the third-place horse (Commissioner wound up finishing second to Tonalist again in the Belmont Stakes).

Madefromlucky beat Conquest Curlinate by just one length, and the entire field was separated by only 4 1/4 lengths. Conquest Curlinate pulled out of Belmont Stakes consideration last week, so it appears Madefromlucky will have to dramatically improve to hit the board on Saturday.

HOW THE RACE SHAPES UP

The Belmont Stakes is a rider's race, meaning racing tactics play a huge roll in deciding the outcome. That is why so many high-priced horses have won the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

Victor Espinoza has been in this position twice before and came up empty both times. New York-based jockeys have an advantage over other riders simply because Belmont Park is a unique racetrack, one that is 1 1/2 miles in circumference.

The fact American Pharoah drew inside of Materiality means the Derby-Preakness winner will go to the lead, especially since none of the four horses drawn inside of American Pharoah have any early speed.

The key question Espinoza will have to answer is: does he let Materiality pass him early in the race? If he does, he runs the risk of letting the Florida Derby winner possibly go gate-to-wire. Don't forget, John Velazquez, Materiality's jockey, has won a pair of Belmont Stakes in the last nine years.

If Espinoza wants the lead and expends extra energy to hold off the Todd Pletcher-trained colt, then the two horses might go a bit faster than they want, which will play into the hands of a colt such as Frosted to pick up the pieces.

Expect the early fractions to be somewhat soft - 24 and 49 seconds - so the closers (Frammento, Keen Ice, Tale of Verve) will not be much of a factor. Also, look for the likes of Frosted, Mubtaahij and Madefromlucky to be closer to the pace than they have been in recent races.

American Pharoah should have the lead approaching the top of the stretch, with Frosted and Mubtaahij gaining ground on a faltering Materiality, who might be faced with the unfortunate task of running with American Pharoah for the first 10 furlongs.

The key number in the Belmont Stakes is the time it takes to run the first mile. If it comes up around 1:37 or faster, then Frosted (and to a smaller extent, Mubtaahij) has a great chance to win. If the middle half-mile is just as slow as the first one, then the Triple Crown is American Pharoah's for the taking.

THE $100 BELMONT STAKES WAGER

In terms of wagering, money will not be made by taking the favorite. To that end, let's go with the angle of a quicker second half-mile and American Pharoah faltering down the stretch.

Put $40 to win on Frosted and place $20 on a Frosted-American Pharoah exacta. Also, bet $20 on a Frosted-Mubtaahij exacta box.



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