CRAWFORD | Triple Crown-winning jockeys hopeful but skeptical of Pharoah's chances
Few people know more about winning the Triple Crown than the three living jockeys who have accomplished the feat. This week, Ron Turcotte, Jean Cruget and Steve Cauthen, the jockeys of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, talked about American Pharoah and his chances.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — If there's anyone whose insight is worth listening to regarding the Triple Crown, it's the three men who have ridden Triple Crown winners.
Earlier this week, Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte, Seattle Slew's Jean Cruget and Affirmed's Steve Cauthen appeared on a national teleconference to talk about American Pharoah's run at history in the June 6 Belmont Stakes.
Turcotte was already a well-known jockey by the time he guided Secretariat to the Triple Crown in 1973. Cruget grew up in a French orphanage and was introduced to riding at the age of 16. After serving in the French Army during the war with Algeria, he returned to riding, came to the U.S. in 1965 and wrote his name into history when he got the mount on Seattle Slew, who won the Triple Crown in 1977.
A year later, Steve Cauthen became a star. He was the nation's leading rider at age 17, then became the first jockey to earn $6 million in purses in 1978 when he rode Affirmed to the Triple Crown. He went on to a riding career in the U.K.
With American Pharoah attempting to become the 12th horse ever to win a Triple Crown next week, all three are hopeful. But as jockeys often are, they're also skeptical in some ways.
Neither Turcotte, 73, nor Cruget, 76, was particularly impressed with American Pharoah's Kentucky Derby effort, while all agree that he could benefit from an off track in the Belmont, like he got in the Preakness.
“He didn't really impress me in the Kentucky Derby,” Turcotte said. “I thought he was all out, or anyways, the jockey had to get after him pretty good, whether he was waiting on horses or whatever. But the Preakness I think the rain came just at the right time.”
Cruget said he thought American Pharoah looked like a Triple Crown contender after the Arkansas Derby “for sure,” but agreed his run in the Derby “was not impressive at all.”
“He's a good horse for sure,” Cruget said. “. . . He's going to be challenged. It's going to be, you know, it's not going to be an easy race.”
Cauthen, now 55, said that after drawing an outside post in the Kentucky Derby, he thinks American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza were “very careful with him.”
“He went wide, but (Espinoza) really did have to pick up up and get after him in the Derby,” Cauthen said. “The time was OK, nothing that fantastic. And, of course, he went to the Preakness and got the off track, which he obviously handled, and probably his two main competitors didn't. The only thing that really kind of was concerning to me was the final three-sixteenths of a mile were quite slow, but watching the race you wouldn't know it because he just ran away from the rest of the horses in the field. But the fact is, he beat a horse, you know, the horse that was second had just broken his maiden.”
Still, Cauthen said he likes the looks of American Pharoah.
“He does appear to be just a really top-class horse,” he said. “He's an excellent mover, beautiful confirmation, and he obviously has always been that. He was the 2-year-old champion. So I think he's going to the Belmont with a team that's been there before. It's nothing new for them. . . . 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 big thing — the reason they call it the test of champions — it's that mile and a half and there's going to be some nice horses that will be testing him.”
Turcotte, in particular, knows the kind of expectation facing Espinoza. It had been a quarter-century since any horse had won the Triple Crown when he came along with Secretariat. People were starting to wonder if the feat ever would be done again.
But Turcotte also pointed out that Secretariat was a different kind of horse, “the best horse who ever lived.” He worked a mile and a quarter — the Kentucky Derby distance — in 1:59 two weeks before the Belmont, and trainer Lucien Lauren worked him twice as hard before the Belmont as he did the other races.
The Belmont, because it's run on a track that is so much larger than the others, is especially challenging for riders. Cauthen said that's definitely a factor.
“I think it certainly helps to spend some time riding around Belmont, because it is just a unique track being a mile and a half in circumference and it is so easy for guys that don't ride there regularly to move a little bit prematurely,” he said. “When you're at the half-mile pole at Belmont and you feel like you're at the three-eighths pole on a normal track, it's just easy to make a mistake if you don't ride there regularly. But Victor Espinoza's obviously —- although he's not a regular at Belmont — he's ridden in the Belmont, so I think he's got his perspective well there, and it's just a question of, you know, pace in the race. As Ronnie was saying, every good jockey is usually a good judge of pace, and obviously Victor's won enough races to do it. I don't really think that there's any disadvantage. I think they're going into the race with every chance, but as you say, there are people lining up. Nobody's going to give it to him, and they're not supposed to.”
Regardless of what they think of American Pharoah's chances, all three agree that the sport would benefit from another Triple Crown winner.
“Not only is it long past time, I think, you know, the situation has only proved how difficult it is,” Cauthen said. “I specifically remember after winning the Triple Crown back in '78 that there were some people saying the Triple Crown is getting too easy; you know, like we're going to have to make it tougher, and that is laughable now. But I think it would be great for racing. I think every one of the things that was so satisfying, for winning the Triple Crown, the great rivalry Alydar and Affirmed had did attract a huge amount of fans to racing, and, you know, they turned into lifelong fans. I think that American Pharoah, and it sounds like (his owner) Mr. Zayat would race him at least through the end of the year, hopefully would be out a few more times for people to see and it would just be good for the game. I mean, I can't remember the last time a horse was on the cover of Sports Illustrated or TIME Magazine. It's been awhile. I think Secretariat might've been the only horse that actually even made it to the cover of TIME. But that's what racing needs. It needs, as you say, to get out into the eye of just the average fan or even people that wouldn't watch racing other than the Triple Crown.”
Win or lose, all three will be watching on June 6, and reliving a bit of what it felt like to win the Triple Crown.
Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.