About two-and-a-half minutes after American Pharoah breaks from Post No. 5 at 5:50 p.m. CDT Saturday in the 147th Belmont Stakes. the horse will join one of two lists.
American Pharoah, the Belmont Stakes 2015 favorite, could find his name written with Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed – 11 horses who rank among the legends of thoroughbred racing because they won the Triple Crown.
Or he could find himself lumped with Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I'll Have Another and California Chrome – a group of outstanding horses good enough to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. But none of them won the Belmont, too, and failed to take away Affirmed's title as the most recent Triple Crown winner.
Bob Baffert, American Pharoah's trainer, saddled three of those horses – Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem. Victor Espinoza, American Pharoah's jockey, rode two of them – War Emblem and California Chrome.
"We know we're against it," Baffert said. "This is a very tough race with a lot of very nice horses in it. Like Pat Riley said, 'In championship games, there is winning and there is misery.' So that's what we're looking at right now. I'm soaking it in. It's exciting. I never thought I'd be back here again in this position, but the way he won his races, and then the Preakness, he was so dominating that day. When he's right, he likes to dominate. He's that kind of horse. Hopefully, he can bring it one more time."
The 13 almost-Triple Crown winners since Affirmed in 1978 have lost in a variety of ways. Four ran second, including Baffert's Real Quiet, who lost by a nose. One never made it to the starting line. They've been beaten by equally talented horses and crazy long shots. But lately, they've been beaten by a fresher horse – one that didn't run in the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago and the Preakness three weeks ago.
American Pharoah is the only horse that will campaign in all the Triple Crown races this year. But the Belmont Stakes isn't called "The Test of the Champion" for nothing. Six of the Triple Crown winners carried the same lonely burden, and it didn't keep them from earning the final piece of immortality.
"American Pharoah looks like a superstar and is going to be very hard to beat," said Kiaran McLaughlin. who trains Frosted. "The closer we get to the race, I just have to keep going back to the fact that it's been a long time since we've had a Triple Crown winner. I've watched his workouts, and he just looks like a special
horse. Like I said, I love our horse. He couldn't be doing better. But, wow, it's going to take a subpar race from American Pharoah, I'm afraid."
American Pharoah will be 1.5 miles from history when the gate opens on Saturday – the length of the Belmont and a distance none of the eight horses entered Saturday has raced previously.
"When I lead him over, I sort of feel like I have an edge," Baffert said of American Pharoah. "But coming in here and going one-and-a-half miles, it's a completely different story. We don't know how any of them are going to handle it because none of them have been that far. We just hope and dream from here on out."
Why might American Pharoah succeed when other top-notch horses have failed? It's his efficient stride, Baffert said.
"The way he moves -- I've never had a horse that moves or travels over the ground like he does," Baffert said. "I've had some really good horses, but I've never had a horse that moves like that. There's something in there that makes him so different than the other horses. That's what we have in our favor."
Frosted and Materiality are considered the top spoilers to American Pharoah's Triple Crown chances.
Frosted finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby. After taking a wide path to the homestretch, he was the only horse in the field gaining on the trio that fought for the victory – American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund. After finishing far behind American Pharoah in the Preakness, Firing Line and Dortmund had had enough, but Frosted is back for the Belmont on five weeks' rest.
Materiality also skipped the Preakness after finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby. The horse suffered his first loss there after getting bottled up in traffic.
Three other horses that ran in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness are back for another run against American Pharoah – Keen Ice (seventh in the Derby), Mubtaahij (eighth) and Frammento (11 th ). In the past 15 Belmonts, seven of the winners were Kentucky Derby also-rans who skipped the Preakness.
Tale of Verve ran second to American Pharoah at the Preakness. No horse that ran in the Preakness has won the Belmont since 2005, when Afleet Alex won both races. Afleet Alex also is the most recent favorite to win the Belmont.
Madefromlucky is the other horse in the Belmont field. He didn't run in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, but comes into the Belmont off a victory in the Peter Pan Stakes on May 9 at Belmont Park. Tonalist followed the same path last year to win the Belmont. He was the fifth winner in the past eight Belmonts who didn't run in the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.