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Gene Kershner’s Post Time: American Pharoah faces biggest test at Belmont

ELMONT – Thoroughbred racing fans have been waiting to witness a Triple Crown winner for 37 years, which for some, is their whole lives.

They have watched strong, promising horses like Big Brown ease at the top of the stretch, or Smarty Jones caught by a late flying Birdstone.

They have worn pins sporting the name California Chrome and pounded their racing forms against the fence while screaming at the top of their lungs during the home stretch. They have paid their dues as fans, only to have their hopes dashed by mere inches at times.

Since Affirmed won in 1978, there have been 12 failed attempts and one scratched colt.

Early Saturday evening before an expected crowd of 90,000 and a television audience numbering in the millions, American Pharoah will attempt to end the long drought and join the company of some of racing’s greatest thoroughbreds. Post time for the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes is 6:50 p.m. (Ch. 2, Radio 550 AM).

Only 11 horses have completed the trifecta of American classic races and placards with their names will be prominently displayed in the infield this afternoon as a reminder of those feats. Revered horses such as Secretariat, Citation and Seattle Slew are part of the club that the homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile will attempt to join.

The problem is that the barriers to entry are almost insurmountable. Belmont Park’s deep and sandy track, fresh horses and a race distance never traveled by any of the eight horses in the field has doomed many a Triple Crown hopeful.

American Pharoah’s talent is well documented and he’s won the first two legs by executing a perfect game plan scripted by trainer Bob Baffert in both races. The affable trainer will take his fourth shot at securing the Triple Crown this afternoon and he understands the enormity of the circumstances.

“There is going to be millions of people tuned in. We’ve seen things go crazy in this race,” said Baffert. “Look at Big Brown (in 2008), that was the most bizarre race ever. There have been a lot of great horses that have failed. I got beat a nose (with Real Quiet in 1998), so I have come the closest. Those things happen and you scratch your head, it’s a mile and a half and you can get beat by a couple inches.”

You can almost hear Baffert elicit a Pacino-like “Any Given Sunday” speech that racing is “a game of inches” or “one half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it.”

Fresh horses loom largest when the Belmont Stakes rolls around. Kentucky Derby horses such as Frosted, Materiality, Mubtaahij and Keen Ice all sat out the Preakness, laying in wait for American Pharoah in New York with five weeks rest. It’s like an NBA team getting a bye in the Conference finals and waiting to play a team that just finished off a grueling seven-game series to get to the Finals.

It may not be fair, but it’s one of the reasons why the Triple Crown is so difficult. Keen Ice’s trainer Dale Romans thinks the world of American Pharoah, but knows that history is not on his side. “History says that Pharoah can’t do it,” said Romans on Thursday morning. “He has to be a superhorse to do it. As much as I like him, I’m going to make him out to prove it.”

In the same breath, Romans lauded what a special horse American Pharoah is. “I thought he was a superhorse when I saw him as a 2-year-old. We watched 60 horses breeze that morning, and he was head and shoulders above the rest of them. His stride was different, and the way he carried himself, you know you were in the presence of greatness even then,” said Romans.

A horse who would benefit most from a fast early pace between Pharoah and Florida Derby winner Materiality is Frosted. He made a late closing move to finish fourth in the Derby, just missing the trifecta in a photo. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin knows his horse has to stay closer to the pace in the Belmont versus what unfolded in the Derby.

“He will be closer, because of the mile and a half. It looks like the two, American Pharoah and Materiality will be out in front and maybe Zito (Frammento) and Romans (Keen Ice) behind us, so we’ll be between third and sixth somewhere,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin drew comparisons with his lone Belmont Stakes winner, Jazil, who won the Belmont Stakes nine years ago, after closing late in the Derby to finish fourth. “It’s a good comparison, Jazil was fourth in the Derby and then pointed for this race right after that. It would be super if it worked out the same way as it did in 2006.”

The pace scenario will likely dictate the results of this year’s Test of a Champion. Should Pharoah and Materiality go too fast early, it will set up perfectly for Frosted, Madefromlucky or perhaps Mubtaahij. If the fractions are moderate, it will favor the two fastest horses in the field and we’ll likely see a stretch duel between Pletcher’s Materiality and the dual classic winner with a Triple Crown on the line.

The Peter Pan winner Madefromlucky will try and duplicate last year’s winner Tonalist, who took the same path to upset California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid, utilizing the prep at Belmont as a path to the winner’s circle.

Jockey Javier Castellano thinks he has the horse to pull the upset, even after two failed attempts to beat American Pharoah at Oaklawn Park during the Derby prep season. “He finished up very well in the Peter Pan. It’s a good sign and my horse he’ll run all day, that’s a big plus,” said Castellano. His horse is bred for the distance and his sire Lookin at Lucky was a Preakness winner and 3-year-old champion.

When asked where he’d like his colt to be as he approached the quarter pole and Belmont Park’s long stretch, a smile stretched over the Eclipse-winning jockey’s face. “I’d like to be in the lead. Everybody wants to see a Triple Crown, but in the same time, I’ve never won the Belmont Stakes in my career and I’d like to do that. But they don’t give it away, you have to earn it.”

Baffert understands he has to earn it and will turn it over to jockey Victor Espinoza to finish the deal. “I don’t even think about the history part of it. Right now I’m focused on getting him up there, putting the saddle on him, listening to the song New York, New York and then he’s on his own.”

You can almost hear Pacino delivering that famous locker room speech of “three minutes to the biggest battle of our professional lives, all comes down to today.” For American Pharoah, the results of those few minutes will mean the difference between good and immortality.

Post Time Outlook: 1 – Frosted. 2 – American Pharoah. 3 – Materiality. 4 - Madefromlucky.

Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.