Updated Wednesday, June 3, 2015
American Pharoah has half the tail and twice the heart of most racehorses, and in our heart of hearts we want him to be the first in 37 years to capture racing’s Triple Crown.
He’s won six graded stakes in a row, in sun and rain, and all except one by multiple lengths. But the Test of Champions is a test like none other. The Belmont Stakes is a mile and a half on deep sand and silt, with a contour of long sweeping turns leading into a very lengthy stretch – a uniquely taxing combination.
Saturday’s 147th Belmont is the only race in America that’s about stamina as much as speed. If you want races that are about pace and post positions, there are wonderful ones of all types at Belmont Day: five Grade 1 stakes on the undercard.
For the record, in Wednesday’s draw at Rockefeller Center, Mubtaahij pulled post No. 1, which does provide an edge on a track with a livelier rail and wider turns than most. But American Pharoah’s draw of No. 5 seems insignificant in a field of 8 in a race as long as this. With his remarkable quickness and agility he easily will find the lane he wants.
Post time was pushed closer to prime time: 6:50 ET, with NBC expecting record viewership. The hype of course is all-AP, smoothest-striding horse of his generation.
But in the finest and deepest field of 3-year-olds in a half century, there are two others Materiality and Frosted, who are almost as fast, and are better rested and better bred for this extended journey. They offer more investment value.
American Pharoah is 3-5 in the morning line and 4-5 in Vegas action, but this may be a case of the heart overruling the head. It’s unrealistic to think he has anything near 50 percent probability of winning.
The last 12 horses to seize the first two jewels of the crown were denied the third. This looks more like an inside straight than a horse race.
American Pharoah’s trainer, Bob Baffert, is a Hall of Famer, but Belmont Park has blocked him from three Triple Crowns. And I don’t think he’s figured it out yet. Rather than train at the track where he will race, Baffert breezed his colt at Churchill Downs in Louisville. On Monday, AP reeled off eight impressive furlongs. He was timed at 1:00.2 for five furlongs, 1:13 for six, and 1:39.6 for the mile.
“He just kept clicking right along,” Baffert said. “He showed he had a lot of energy.”
There’s not much doubt the Phavorite is fit. He was weighed Monday at 1,178 pounds – 8 more than the day before the Kentucky Derby.
Still, questions remain if he will like the Belmont distance and the track. He jogged around it on Wednesday morning and showed no disdain. But a timed work would have been more definitive, and Baffert wasn’t giving him that so close to the race.
The DNA from AP’s dad is impeccable. Pioneer of the Nile sired Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker. But Pharoah is very short on the dam’s side. Littleprincessemma, unraced, was fathered by the moderately distinguished sprinter Yankee Gentleman.
AP is up against several who have marathon breeding from both the mother and father.
Materiality is the son of Belmont Stakes winner Afleet Alex. Materiality’s mom, Wildwood Flower, finished third in a graded stakes at two turns — in her first out.
Frosted’s sire, Tapit, fathered last year’s Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist. Frosted’s dam, Fast Cookin, is by Deputy Minister, ancestor of four Belmont champions: Sarava, Jazil, Touch Gold and Rags to Riches. Deputy Minister is also grandfather of Curlin, who was runner-up to the filly Rags to Riches in the Belmont.
But horses, like humans, should be judged more on what they do than what their parents gave them.
From watching American Pharoah, Frosted and Materiality the only time they raced together, in the Kentucky Derby, I’m not sure any of them wanted more distance. Victor Espinoza whipped his colt 32 times to prod him to the win.
Frosted, a dark-silver beauty, started poorly. He stuttered, perhaps unnerved by the noise of 170,000 people. He found his stride on the turn. Though parked 5-wide, he rallied from 14th to fourth. He actually ran farther and faster than the winner, but his closing kick was an optical illusion. Horses ahead of him were slowing more than he was.
Materiality had an even worse start: last, as he stumbled and tossed a shoe. But in just the fourth race of his life, he recovered to settle into a quick, easy rhythm. He picked up five lengths in the stretch, to finish sixth.
Todd Pletcher, who trains Materiality, and Kiaran McLaughlin, with Frosted, skipped the Preakness Stakes, second leg of the series, to prepare for the Belmont. They knew they had little chance of catching the Pharoah at Preakness distance of 1 3/16 miles.
Pletcher is the country’s leading trainer but is 1-for-43 in the Derby. He often fails to acquaint his horses with Churchill prior to its biggest race. He takes a different approach with this race, on his home track. He trains his Belmont runners at Belmont. He finished second last year with Commissioner, at 28-1. His horses were first or second in 5 of the last 8 Belmonts. His career record in this race: 18 starts, 2 wins, 4 places, 6 shows.
The Belmont field, dwindled to eight with some defections, does offer longshot possibilities.
Mubtaahij, import from Arabia, finished 8th among 18 in the Derby, encouraging considering the drastic change of venue, a new diet and a very confining 3-day quarantine. His Irish breeding is more distance-oriented than most American bloodlines.
His trainer, South African Mike de Cock, is one of the world’s most respected. The colt has been working briskly at Belmont for a month (six timed works), while gaining weight and muscle. A switch from Christophe Soumillon (busy in Europe) to local rider Irad Ortiz Jr. helps his chances on a course as quirky as this one. Ortiz is a rising star.
This is a race that over the past 14 years has gone to some very long shots: Commendable 18-1, Sarava 70-1, Da’ Tara 38-1, Ruler on Ice 25-1.
Along those lines, Keen Ice, 7th in the Derby, is the sort of slow-footed steady grinder that wins the Belmont every three or four years — with stunning payouts — when faster horses wear out in the stretch. As Baffert said, “We’re all sort of in the same boat. It’s a mile and a half; nobody’s sure who wants to do it.”
The last three horses to win both the Derby and Preakness ran out of the money at Belmont Park. That streak could continue. Espinoza won’t push his equine treasure for anything but the win. If AP starts tiring with a furlong to go, expect a major fade.
The main threat to Pharoah might be Materiality, who has the fastest Beyer speed rating of any 3-year-old this year: 110 while winning the Florida Derby. He’s a step faster, with more upside, than Frosted, who won the Wood Memorial with a 103. But Frosted is working better at Belmont. Materiality, observers say, is “not gripping the track.”
With that in mind, I would bet Frosted at 9-2, Materiality at 5-1, Mubtaahij 10-1, Keen Ice 20-1. As for American Pharoah, I recommended him at 5-2 in the Derby and 4-5 in the Preakness, but this is a far more difficult task. He’s the only horse to enter every Triple Crown race, and for that he deserves our love. Not necessarily our money.