CRAWFORD | American Pharoah set for Belmont quest: Ending the Tr - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | American Pharoah set for Belmont quest: Ending the Triple Crown drought

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Bob Baffert, on his pony, Smokey, outside the barn at Belmont. (AP photo) Bob Baffert, on his pony, Smokey, outside the barn at Belmont. (AP photo)
ELMONT, N.Y. (WDRB) — Bob Baffert rode up to his Belmont Park barn like the Lone Ranger, his pony Smokey enjoying some playful morning tricks once American Pharoah had come back from the track and his final gallop before Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

There was no silver bullet. Just a silver-haired trainer who can see the light at the end of a track on this unexpected Triple Crown adventure. No white hat, but the blur of white hair as he spun Smokey in circles, knowing the ride is just about over.

“Win or lose, we go back to normal life,” Baffert said of the run, and then later added, “Every time I get in this position, I figure I'll never have another chance at it, so I'm just trying to enjoy it.”

If American Pharoah could speak, you wonder what he might've said at the spectacle of his trainer, the old quarter-horse racer, riding in on his pony.

It might well have been, “Saturday, it's my turn to play.”

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After 37 years, this sport and its fans have become conditioned to disappointment. And this colt, the son of Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile and grandson of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, will have to earn it if he is to grab one of sport's most elusive prizes.

It'll be not only his third race in five weeks but his fourth race in eight weeks. He'll face two of the fastest three-year-olds of the season in Kiaran McLaughlin's Frosted and Todd Pletcher's Materiality, both of whom had hard-luck trips in the Kentucky Derby, then came straight to Belmont to train while American Pharoah went back to work in the Preakness. He'll undoubtedly face a late challenge from Frammento, trained by Nick Zito, who has twice before spoiled Triple Crown bids.

But there is a bit of a different feel around this colt, a bit more optimism than has been evident in Belmont's barn area since Smarty Jones came to make his bid for history in 2004.

And there is hope around the sport.

“I think he'll win and win easy,” said D. Wayne Lukas, whose Charismatic had the lead with a furlong to go and a Triple Crown on the line in 1999, but faded to third even as jockey Chris Antley eased him with a leg fractured in two places. “The thing that makes American Pharoah probably in a better position than most of them in the past 30 years is the fact that he's had two easy races (Rebel and Arkansas Derby), one tough one (Kentucky Derby) and then another easy one (Preakness). So he's got that going for him.”

Lukas isn't the only believer. David Vance, a three-time training champion at Churchill Downs who watched the colt go to the track most mornings at Churchill, said, “I haven't seen a horse as good as him since Secretariat.”

Nobody is expecting American Pharoah to win the Belmont by 31 lengths, like Secretariat did. But even if he could summon enough to win the Belmont by 3/4 of a length like his grandsire, Empire Maker, Baffert and his connections would take it.

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The race is expected to shape up this way. American Pharoah and Materiality, trained by Todd Pletcher, are expected to go to the lead early. Frosted, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, Madefromlucky, another Pletcher entry, and Mubtaahij are expected to settle in behind them. Keen Ice, trained by Dale Romans, Nick Zito's Frammento and Dallas Stewart's Tale of Verve will fall back and expect to make late charges.

“Something crazy is going to have to happen,” Zito said. “He's a really nice horse. But you know, sometimes things do happen.”

Maybe Materiality goes hard at American Pharoah early, the two burn each other out, and someone else is there to pick up the pieces. Maybe American Pharoah runs out of gas. Maybe Frosted gets an ideal trip and just proves better. There are a dozens of scenarios that can play out in which American Pharoah loses.

Baffert, owner Ahmed Zayat and jockey Victor Espinoza are hoping for that one scenario in which their colt wins, and makes history.

“We're all excited, the anxiety is starting to build up, the closer we get” Baffert said. “The next time he's on that track it'll be in front of 90,000 fans. I really think he's going to run his race. We just need to get some racing luck. . . . We're just hoping he can do this thing, and break this drought. I think I'm responsible for the drought since I lost it a couple of times before.”

Until then, Baffert will hold his breath. He'll go out to dinner in New York City. He'll make sure Espinoza observes a race-night curfew. And he has shut down access to American Pharoah.

“The key now is to keep the human element away from him from here on out so he can rest and relax,” Baffert said. “We're going to be really strict about keeping people out of the barn from here on out, no more cameras or photo ops. He needs to rest, because when people come around he thinks maybe he's going to go out and do something. So that's going to be very important. . . . The barn here is unbelievable. He's never stayed in a stall like that. He feels like he's really hit a lick.”

CRAWFORD | Baffert taking Triple Crown chase in stride

On Saturday, Baffert is hoping he really does. And maybe, at the end of a mile and half, the guy who rode a pony on Friday will be celebrating a Triple Crown on Saturday.

“I try to get on Smokey after training and ride him around the barn,” Baffert said. “I really enjoy him. That's why I bought him. He's just like my little hobby to get on and remind me that I used to ride horses. I used to ride every day for hours and hours.

“A lot of people look at me like, ‘Oh, you know how to ride?' They're shocked by it. But I came from the quarter-horse world where we had to break our own horses. So I've ridden a lot of miles on horses. It's just my out. I got on him today just to release a little bit of nervous energy.”

No matter how big a favorite American Pharoah is, the real odds are against any horse completing the Triple Crown. But a great many horse racing fans are hoping he'll overcome them, and run into the New York sunset with a victory.


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