There is a reason the “Just One Before I Die” shirts are popular with Bills and Sabres fans. If you were born after 1978, you might want to break out one of those shirts next Saturday evening when American Pharoah tries to end a 37-year Triple Crown drought at the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes.
Only 11 horses in history have conquered the Triple Crown, many believe that American Pharoah, a son of Pioneer of the Nile, has what it takes to end the streak. The 3-year-old phenom has done everything right for owner Zayat Stables, tallying six consecutive victories, including the first two legs of the Triple Crown series, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. He continues to lightly train at Churchill Downs and will ship to Long Island on Tuesday, according to trainer Bob Baffert.
Baffert, who won the 2001 Belmont Stakes with Point Given, will spend the days before the race getting his horse used to the Big Sandy. All 11 previous Triple Crown winners had a race over the Belmont strip prior to the third and final leg, but American Pharoah has yet to compete at Belmont Park.
The race, described as The Test of a Champion, requires both heart and stamina to endure the 1½ mile trek around Belmont Park’s vast oval. Jockey Victor Espinoza will hope that the third time is a charm after failed attempts at the Triple Crown with War Emblem (2002) and California Chrome (2014).
There are nine challengers lying in wait at Belmont Park next weekend with hopes of derailing his attempt at racing glory. If American Pharoah can’t do it, the following are some prime candidates for extending the drought to 38 years:
Frosted: The likely second choice in the betting is sired by Tapit, who sired last year’s Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist. His third sire is a former Belmont winner, A.P. Indy. His dam sire Deputy Minister, a former Canadian champion, was also the dam sire to Rags to Riches, Sarava and Jazil, and second-place finisher Curlin. There’s a lot to like pedigree-wise. He’s not the deep closer that you might think he is, and if he rates behind the leaders and gets a quickened pace on the front end, he is a real win threat. He skipped the Preakness after a fourth-place finish in the Derby and could spoil the Pharoah party.
Materiality: Another colt likely to be heavily backed to make an upset bid on Long Island is the son of 2005 Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex. The lightly raced Materiality has only four career races under his belt, his only defeat coming via his sixth-place finish in the Derby. His final quarter was the fastest of all 18 Derby horses as he turned a troubled early trip into a decent finish in Louisville. While he may not be the one to beat American Pharoah, he could apply intense early pressure to the dual classic winner and cause him to tire out in the stretch, allowing a horse like Frosted or Keen Ice to pass them both in the stretch. His best chance is to be forwardly placed with light fractions creating a stretch dual between the two most talented horses in the race leading to a dramatic finish with the Triple Crown on the line.
Keen Ice: Like American Pharoah, he continued to train at Churchill Downs leading up into the race. He’s nicely bred for the Belmont distance, sired by Curlin, the former two-time Horse of the Year. The major question is whether he has enough talent to match up with the top half of this field. He’s a deep closer who had no pace to run at in the Derby and finished seventh behind Materiality passing tired horses in the stretch. He’ll need a pace meltdown to be a factor, but could see him catching a piece of the trifecta or superfecta with a late run.
Mubtaahij: The son of Dubawi likely has the best stamina-influenced pedigree in the field. Dubawi has the best average winning distance of any other colt’s sire in the race at 8.6 furlongs. Similar to Keen Ice he’ll need some pace to run at on Saturday. He has a lot of excuses for his disappointing eighth-place finish in the Derby, but after five weeks of settling in at Belmont and getting used to the surroundings most of those negatives should be in the rear view window. On stamina alone, he is a major upset threat.
Tale of Verve: I have vivid memories of his father, Tale of Ekati, pinning Big Brown down on the rail in the 2008 Triple Crown attempt as they headed to the clubhouse turn and ultimately finished in a dead heat for fourth. The surprise second-place finisher in the slop at Pimlico two weeks ago is another deep closer, a trait that has sunk many a Belmont challenger. We may have seen his best in the Preakness and while he may attract some betting dollars at the windows based on that effort, he could regress in New York.
Frammento: Trainer Nick Zito has had his share of Triple Crown killers (see Birdstone and D’Tara), so he makes the list of likely upset contenders for just that reason. Frammento is the son of Midshipman, the 2-year-old champion of 2008. He has some stamina on both sides of his pedigree, a plus for this race. In addition to his two wins in the Triple Crown’s final leg, Zito has seven second-place finishes in the Test of a Champion.
Madefromlucky: Last year’s Peter Pan winner donned the carnations after the Belmont in 2014. Can this year’s winner of the same race do the same? Trainer Todd Pletcher is hopeful of a similar result for the son of Lookin at Lucky, the 2010 Preakness winner. With two other horses (Carpe Diem and Materiality) that can potentially create a pace scenario detrimental to American Pharoah, it could benefit his third horse in the race the most. Looking through his pedigree, it’s littered with connections to former Belmont winners. This could be the unlikely upset prospect that shatters the Pharoah’s Triple Crown dreams.
The drama and intrigue is building for next weekend’s Triple Crown finale and the contender list is filled with horses capable of blackballing American Pharoah’s entry into one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.