Belmont Stakes 2015 Week(s) in Review

Thoughts and notes leading up to the 2015 Belmont Stakes — and the 14th Triple Crown bid since 1978.

Five weeks ago I said there will never be another Triple Crown winner. That doesn’t mean none have tried. 13 horses* have had the opportunity to win the Crown since Affirmed’s coronation in 1978. And now with American Pharoah awaiting his turn in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, we again find ourselves doing the two-down-one-to-go waltz with history, hands gripping painfully tight.

After the many close calls in recent decades, to gaze upon this dance partner too keenly is to invite an anxiety that touches the belly with cold fingers and makes the heart flutter like a frightened bird.

Last year California Chrome, he of the flashy looks and controversial owners, had a shot at racing’s most coveted prize. In what must have been an eerie flashback to War Emblem’s decisive stumble at the gate in 2002 for jockey Victor Espinoza, California Chrome bobbled at the start of the Belmont and was stepped on by a horse in a neighboring post. With the wind knocked out of his sails early, the colt settled for a dead heat for fourth before a disappointed crowd of over 100,000 in attendance and millions watching from home, yours truly included. But I was also not surprised.

This time around, I’m holding my breath. Is American Pharoah — that bay colt with the handsomely short tail and beautiful, easy stride that reaches out for days — the one? Does his deceptively plain wrapper hide the nobility and fortitude required of a Triple Crown winner?

American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza win the 141st Kentucky Derby over Firing Line (pink cap) and Dortmund (number 8) at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015. (Photo courtesy Tom Ferry)

To recap, American Pharoah was put to the test in the Kentucky Derby. After becoming visibly worked up by the rowdy Churchill Downs crowd during the walk over to the saddling paddock, the colt had to collect his wits for the race. He then overcame post 18, a wide trip, and a little race riding via being herded out on the final turn by jockey Gary Stevens, who was aboard the very tough and game Firing Line.

2015 Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 2, 2015.

Two weeks later, American Pharoah showed no sign of Derby fatigue. As a downpour flooded Pimlico and the other contenders balked at the stinging rain and sloppy footing, American Pharoah skipped to the lead in the Preakness Stakes under hand urging from Victor Espinoza. Over the first turn, the colt settled into a high cruising speed with his ears pricked cheerfully. There he remained, untouchable by challengers on the final turn as he drew away to win by an easy seven lengths in a performance that was nothing short of breathtaking.

2015 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse on May 16, 2015.

In the weeks since the Preakness, American Pharoah has done nothing wrong. He has, by all accounts — including that of trainer Bob Baffert — either maintained or gained weight, which alone is an excellent sign of vigor and health in a racehorse with a busy schedule.

He has worked twice at Churchill Downs — his temporary home base during the grueling Triple Crown weeks — and both works revealed a happy, playful horse that, upon being turned loose from the stable pony, pulled on rider Martin Garcia’s arms like an overjoyed wild creature. To watch American Pharoah pour his easy, arrow-straight stride down the Churchill Downs stretch is a treat in itself. That he did it handily in a crisp :48.00 over 4 furlongs on May 26 and 1:00.20 over 5 furlongs on June 1 is further reassurance that all is well with the colt.

American Pharoah works 4 furlongs at Churchill Downs on May 26, 2015.
American Pharoah works 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on June 1, 2015.

My notes and thoughts for Racing Reviewer aside, this year I’ve bowed out of picking through the horse with a fine-tooth comb on social media. Instead, like a visitor to a museum, I would rather stand to the side and simply admire the colt for the work of art that he is.

A large part of me still thinks the Triple Crown will indefinitely collect dust on Affirmed’s shelf. But a smaller part can’t help but hope that this is the year.

*Belmont placings during Triple Crown bids since 1978:

1979: Spectacular Bid and jockey Ronnie Franklin, 3rd.

1981: Pleasant Colony and Jorge Velasquez, 3rd.

1987: Alysheba and Chris McCarron, 4th.

1989: Sunday Silence and Pat Valenzuela, 2nd.

1997: Silver Charm and Gary Stevens, 2nd.

1998: Real Quiet and Kent Desormeaux, 2nd.

1999: Charismatic and Chris Antley, 3rd.

2002: War Emblem and Victor Espinoza, 8th.

2003: Funny Cide and Jose Santos, 3rd. (This Belmont was won by Empire Maker, paternal grandsire of American Pharoah.)

2004: Smarty Jones and Stewart Elliott, 2nd.

2008: Big Brown and Kent Desormeaux, DNF.

2012: I’ll Have Another and Mario Gutierrez, did not start.

2014: California Chrome and Victor Espinoza, tied for 4th.

Belmont placings during Triple Crown bids prior to 1978. Note that there were a total of 10 Triple Crown bids compared to 13 after 1978:

1932: Burgoo King, did not start.

1936: Bold Venture, did not start.

1944: Pensive, 2nd.

1958: Tim Tam, 2nd.

1961: Carry Back, 7th.

1964: Northern Dancer, 3rd.

1966: Kauai King, 4th.

1969: Majestic Prince, 2nd.

1971: Canonero II, 4th.