Is Baffert going to fumble the Triple Crown?

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Updated May 21, 2015

The racing gods seem aligned against American Pharoah.  His draw of Post 18 in the Kentucky Derby necessitated a perfect launch to secure a favorable lane on the approaching turn.  Two weeks later the dark-chocolate-coated, half-tailed colt drew another daunting post:  No. 1, at a Pimlico Race Course notorious for its “dead” rail.

It’s especially boggy in the rain, as water tends to migrate to the inside.  So 15 minutes before post time for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, thunder rumbled.  Lightning slashed the sky, which proceeded to hammer Baltimore with wind-driven rain.

If the Pimlico directors believed in weather science – and where I live, the Texas hill country, we don’t– they would not have been surprised when the storm passed nine minutes after the race.

Why were they unwilling to delay?  The betting windows are gonna close?  Why put the lives of horses – not to mention jockeys – in peril?  But hey, you can’t beat it for drama on reality TV.

Bob Baffert, trainer of the 4/5 favorite, fretted about American Pharoah’s sensitive ears, stuffed with cotton balls.  He asked: “What if they got soaked like a wet diaper?”

The colt’s jockey, Victor Espinoza, who three times has seized two-thirds of racing’s Triple Crown (including last year aboard California Chrome), had planned to stalk from a couple of lengths off the lead.

But suddenly the track became a giant bowl of gumbo, and he did not want it dumped in his and Pharoah’s faces.  So they took over the Preakness early, became the first in 21 years to win it from the rail.

“Great horses do great things,” said Baffert.  “He’s an incredible horse.”  There could be no raining on this parade.  Pharoah ruled by seven lengths, hand-ridden all the way.  So now he’s on deck for the first Triple Crown since Affirmed, 37 years ago.

That will require winning the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, where his trainer has enjoyed little success.  Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby four times, Preakness six, Belmont once —  with Point Given in ’01.  Alas, there was no Triple Crown because he failed to win the Derby.

So for Baffert the third leg is no charm.  Not even with a colt named Silver Charm, in 1997.  That was Baffert’s first unsuccessful grab for the crown.  The next year came Real Quiet daydreaming as Gary Stevens sneaked past on the less talented Victory Gallop.  Baffert blamed Kent Desormeaux, who has rarely ridden for him since, although for other trainers he has won a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness and, yes, a Belmont.

Baffert’s third attempt to put the crown jewels on a 3-year-old racehorse failed in 2002, when War Emblem stumbled at the gate.

Not that anyone else in Baffert’s generation is better at winning Triple Crowns.  Since Affirmed, 13 horses have whiffed at the third jewel.  It’s not just Baffert horses that find they weren’t bred to run three classic routes– 1 3/16 miles and longer — in a five-week span.   Most trainers prefer at least a 4-5-week break between races at this elite level.

Over the past century, breeding has changed.  Quality racehorses are so expensive — $1 million and more for yearlings — that a rapid return on investment is necessary.  Horses are bred to win when they’re young.

But they’re not bred to run often, as they were in Affirmed’s era.  These adolescents – not fully grown — strain to meet a Triple Crown schedule from an earlier time.

American Pharoah is the only horse competing in all of this year’s Triple Crown events.  He wouldn’t be going to Belmont if there were no crown on the line.  Perhaps someday the sport will figure out a way to stagger the Triple Crown schedule a little more, so the race goes to the swift and strong and not to the best-rested.

Whether people say it’s an impossible quest, or it’s faulty riding, bad luck or – imagine this – illogical training — Baffert sounds unconcerned about his Belmont blight.  “I want my horses to run well,” he told the New York Times.  “Otherwise I really don’t care.  The Triple Crown is more for history and the media and New Yorkers.”

He acts like he doesn’t carePerhaps he should.   

After the Preakness, which drew a record 131,680 despite the storm warnings, Baffert said he’d continue the strategy that with the one exception has not worked.  He takes the very long way to Belmont Park, via Churchill Downs.   Apparently AP loves to travel.

On Monday, Baffert was back at Churchill, supervising the feeding of his weary colt, hoping he regains weight lost during Saturday’s harrowing voyage.  As is his custom, Baffert won’t be in New York until the Wednesday before its biggest race, June 6.

Weather permitting, he should have time to give his horse a gallop over the beach-like surface of Belmont.  Perhaps it will be enough – 2001 all over again.  Objectivity aside, I hope Baffert succeeds.  I just think he’s making a difficult task even more difficult.

He makes no secret of his preference for cities that are not New York.  He couldn’t praise  Baltimore enough:  “so much fun.  . . .   I always say it’s my favorite leg.  . . .  It’s so easy to get around, and everybody’s so nice.”

Which makes me wonder:  If Baltimore’s so terrific, why fly your horse back to Louisville to place him an extra 700 miles from his next race?

Trying not to rile the New York media, Baffert has spoken in the past about wanting to dodge “the paparazzi.”  He suggested that training his Belmont horses at Belmont might distract them.

They’re more comfortable and calm elsewhere.  They prefer Louisville, airplanes and trailers, I suppose, but that’s not from the horse’s mouth. 

I do know this:  the barns at Belmont, which truly is a suburban park — an hour by train from Manhattan — are peaceful and secluded.  Guards and ropes separate the rabble from the suited enclave of those who arrived in limousines.

My view, having covered Baffert in several Triple Crown seasons:  he’s less interested in the horse’s comfort than his own.  It’s not that he freezes in front of microphones.  Few public figures are more amiable and articulate.  But like many other celebrities he’d like to limit the media scrutiny.

Perhaps he fears someone in the news capital will ask him if he still mourns the seven horses dying in his barn of Sudden Death Syndrome a couple of years ago.  Investigations turned up no negligence by Baffert, but it’s an issue he’s always tried to avoid discussing.  And of course, the less he has to talk about his Belmont debacles, the better.

In fairness to Baffert, he has reason to avoid unnecessary stress.  He’s 62, and three years removed from surgery following a massive heart attack in Dubai.  But he was showing a Californian’s anti-New York sentiment many years before that.

He may be underrating the value of familiarity with a unique racing surface known as “The Big Sandy.”  While Pimlico has a surface of conventional composition, Churchill and Belmont do not.  Baffert rarely runs a horse in the Kentucky Derby without either a race or a timed sprint on the peculiar dirt/sand/loam of Churchill.  American Pharoah fired a bullet work on it the Sunday before the Derby.

Baffert had him perfectly tuned for the Derby and the Preakness.  But now comes the Test of Champions.  In the 147th Belmont Stakes he faces the usual suspects, but they are fresh and fit and waiting for him.  They will be at full strength; he probably won’t be.

Of the 10 horses (so far) set to challenge American Pharaoah, nine have been soundly beaten by him.  The other, Conquest Curlinate, has not faced him but was second in the May 9 Peter Pan to Madefromlucky, who was abandoned by American Pharoah in the backstretch of the Rebel Stakes.  I would not give this new shooter much of a shot.

A more likely spoiler is Frosted or Materiality, both of whom skipped the Preakness after running a faster final quarter-mile of Derby than the winner did.    

Pushed 5-wide on the turn, Frosted closed with a rush, missing the show by a neck and the win by 3 ¼ lengths.  He ran a longer, faster race (at 35 mph) than American Pharoah.

Frosted’s trainer, Kieran McLaughlin, won the 2006 Belmont with Jazil and has a state of the art conditioning track in Kentucky.  But he flew his big-muscled silver colt to Belmont and worked him there on Friday.  Frosted breezed four furlongs in 47.6 seconds – fastest among 31.  He has won at Belmont before, proving he likes the beach.

As for Materiality, he stumbled and lost his shoe as last one out of the Derby gates.  Inexperience showed in the fourth start of his life.  But though finishing sixth, he gobbled up seven lengths in the stretch as if hungry for more.  He could follow the footsteps of his dad, Afleet Alex, who won the Belmont in 2005.  He has the country’s leading trainer, Todd Pletcher, on his home track, twice winner of the Belmont Stakes.

Materiality won the Florida Derby with an almost unprecedented Beyer speed figure of 110.  For what it’s worth, American Pharoah Beyered 102 for the Preakness, Frosted 103 in the Wood Memorial.  The point being that while AP is a super horse (six straight graded-stakes wins by collective margin of 30 lengths), he’s not a whole lot faster than a couple of other colts from an extraordinary crop of 3’s.

A razor-sharp Frosted or Materiality could outlast a slightly faster but underprepared Pharoah in a race that requires more conditioning than any other on the continent.  Nobody needs to tell Baffert that horses who skipped the Preakness have won the past nine Belmonts.

It’s not good for horse-racing that in its most gripping moment out of three decades, Baffert shows up late again.  He could have enhanced this special occasion.  His mop of snowy hair makes him the one recognizable person in his sport.  He would have brought valuable publicity to an economically threatened industry.

He might ponder the sentiment of his client, American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat, on the significance of a Triple Crown.  Zayat, who was born in Egypt but moved to America at 18, said, “The sport without star is not a sport.”

American Pharoah has overcome hard luck – inconvenient posts, inclement weather — to reach the brink of immortality.  He could be racing’s greatest supernova since Secretariat in the ’70s.  Too bad he now must overcome the indolence and stubbornness of his otherwise brilliant caretaker who takes history, New York and a $1.5 million purse all too lightly.


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