Final jewel of Triple Crown is within American Pharaoh’s reach

Geoffrey Riddle speaks to previous winners of racing's elusive slam ahead of American Pharaoh's run at the Belmont Stakes.

American Pharoah will be attempting what no horse has accomplished since 1978 and capture the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont crowns on Saturday. Andy Lyons / AFP
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It is more likely than not that the Triple Crown drought in America will end in the early hours of Sunday morning as American Pharoah is the overwhelming favourite for the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes.

Since Affirmed’s success under Steve Cauthen in 1978, the hopes of 12 sets of connections have bitten the dust at the racecourse known as the “Big Sandy” as horses have struggled to snap that barren spell.

Affirmed battled his great rival Alydar through each of the stanzas of American sport’s most famous triptych, whereas this time around American Pharoah is the only horse left standing after the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.

Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza have both more than once experienced the pain of defeat when on the verge of the Triple Crown.

Baffert has fallen short three times with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem, who was ridden by Espinoza when he came up short in 2002.

The Mexican rider also guided California Chrome into fourth place 12 months ago.

The Triple Crown is one of the most elusive slams in world sport, and we spoke to those who have been there and done it to get an insight in to what it takes, what it is like and how a win at Belmont Park this weekend might inject fresh enthusiasm for horse racing in America.

Steve Cauthen, jockey of Affirmed

The Triple Crown-winning jockey from 1978 also won the English Derby on Slip Anchor in 1985 and Reference Point in 1987.

With the Derby at Epsom also to be staged on Saturday, it is a reminder that Cauthen remains the only rider to have won both iconic events.

Inducted into racing’s Hall Of Fame in 1994, the former rider, 55, also completed the fillies’ Triple Crown in England when he rode Oh So Sharp to win the 1,000 Guineas, the Oaks and the St Leger for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

“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 (2,400 metres) in circumference. It is so easy for guys that don’t ride there regularly to move a little bit prematurely.

“When you’re at the half-mile pole at Belmont you feel like you’re at the three-eighths pole on a normal track. It is just easy to make a mistake.

“Although Victor Espinoza is not a regular at Belmont he’s ridden in the Belmont Stakes, so I think he’s got his perspective well there. Every good jockey is usually a good judge of pace and obviously Victor’s won enough races to do it ...

“I specifically remember after winning the Triple Crown back in 1978 that there were some people saying the Triple Crown was getting too easy. You know, like we’re going to have to make it tougher, which is laughable now.

“It would be great for racing if they won. I think one of the things that was so satisfying about winning the Triple Crown was that the great rivalry of Alydar and Affirmed attracted a huge amount of fans to racing, and they turned into lifelong fans.

“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.

“That’s what racing needs.”

Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew

Turner, 75, is the only living trainer to have won the Triple Crown. He trained Seattle Slew to become the 10th Triple Crown winner in 1977 and, including the Wood Memorial Stakes, Seattle Slew in fact won four races in a space of just seven weeks. Seattle Slew remains the only undefeated Triple Crown winner in history.

“I think it’s perfect for American Pharoah. I just think that the way he ran in the Preakness he did it with such ease. He was striding so easily during the last part of it that the race didn’t seem to take anything out of him, and I just think he’s coming up to this race perfectly.

“(Hall Of Fame trainer) Woody Stephens won five Belmonts and he did it with horses that trained on the track every day. They were used to going the mile-and-a-half around that big oval.

“It does give you an edge if you’ve trained over it. It’s been proven time and time again. I think Union Rags (2012) was about the first horse that didn’t train here to win the Belmont in quite a while, so it really surprised me that American Pharoah will not have a work over the track.

“The period between the Preakness and Belmont is easy if your horse is doing well, and you’re very confident in his condition, and he doesn’t have any little things that are bothering him. But if he has little things that you’re concerned about, that makes the pressure intense. You want to see your horse put on his best performance and any little thing that pops up you take very seriously.”

Penny Chenery, owner and breeder of Secretariat

Born in New York, the 93-year-old Penny Chenery bred Secretariat, one of the greatest horses the world has seen.

Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in record time before he ended a 25-year wait for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. He set a record time for 2,400 metres on dirt, which still stands, when he went 31 lengths clear in the Belmont Stakes.

“For me, the weeks between the last two races were just impossible because Secretariat was a very charismatic horse and he kept the public’s attention, and I’m not shy. We did in-depth interviews for three magazines because he was on the cover of three magazines that week. I loved it, but it was a lot of work.

“The people who write to me tell me exactly where they were when Secretariat won the Triple Crown or how it impacted them a lifelong love of racing, and we need to support our sport.

“One of our problems, of course, is timing. You only get a race every half-hour and, in today’s world, that’s too long. People want something going on all the time. I know the jockey has to get changed and get ready for the next race, but he could sign a few autographs in between or just stop and say, ‘hi’ to the fans.

“We need to humanise our sport and capitalise on our stars, not only our equine stars.

“I hope they don’t change the (Triple Crown) format. It’s been this way for so long and all our records and statistics are based on this. I don’t think the issue of fresh horses is such a big deal. With Secretariat the more work we threw at him the stronger he got. This is horse racing. If you make it too easy then we’ll have more Triple Crown winners and it will lose its validity.

“American Pharoah seems to have a very fluid, easy stride and doesn’t seem to have any weakness to overcome, so it’s a question of whether he can master his mind around it and do it again. We don’t train horses to do that these days.”

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