Lewis: Quest for next Triple Crown begins again _lowres

Victor Espinoza reacts after guiding American Pharoah to win the 147th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race at Belmont Park, Saturday, June 6, 2015, in Elmont, N.Y. American Pharoah became the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

American Pharoah’s becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years may have stoked the fires in the racing community’s fixation over the sport’s Holy Grail.

But that fixation never really goes away.

That’s especially true at this time of year when the top contenders are approaching their first races as 3-year-olds such as Saturday’s Lecomte at the Fair Grounds.

Maybe, just maybe, the next American Pharoah is in that field of 12.

After all, one of the entries, Z Royal, is owned by Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah.

And even if it’s only been a year, we’re always ready for that next great one, especially considering the difficulty in doing so.

Horses have only a single year of their careers to accomplish it. You can also pretty much disqualify all of the fillies since only three have ever won as much as the Kentucky Derby, the last in 1988.

Moreover, given the delicate nature of thoroughbreds plus the unpredictability of racing, everything has to fall just right.

“American Pharoah was so emotional and so special for everybody,” said Dede McGehee, owner of Lecomte entry Dolphus. “Watching 20,000 people come out at Saratoga just to see him train was unbelievable.

“And even though you know one in a million is a conservative guess of your horse’s chance of doing it, the idea that it’s possible still elevates you.”

Jockey Brian Hernandez, who will be riding Dolphus on Saturday agreed.

“You start out each year with something like 13,000 2-year-olds and only 20 get to the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “And if you were lucky enough to win that, then you’ve also got to win the Preakness and the Belmont.

“So your odds are about the same as in the lottery. But in the back of your mind, especially if your horse is precocious enough, you always feel like this might be the next one.”

Or at least the first one.

Despite distinguished careers, including Hernandez’ winning the 2012 Breeder’s Cup Classic aboard Fort Lenard, neither he nor McGehee have ever had a Kentucky Derby qualifier.

Longtime local trainer Dallas Stewart has at least had a brush with contending.

In 2013 and 2014 respectively, Stewart’s long shot entries Golden Soul and Commanding Curve both finished second.

Last year, Stewart-trained Tale of Verve just missing qualifying for the Derby but then finished second to American Pharoah in the Preakness.

“It’s like winning the Super Bowl, only it’s probably harder,” said Stewart, who will be saddling Gayle Benson’s Tom’s Ready Saturday. “That’s why last year was such a shot in the arm for the whole industry.

“American Pharoah was the best horse last year and he proved it. But every year you keep dreaming that maybe it could be your horse.”

The Lecomte is the first leg of the Fair Ground’s Road to the Louisiana Derby series and also provides qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

Although the Lecomte isn’t make or break for its entries. you can’t get in the Kentucky Derby without earning enough points to make the top 20 and you can’t win the Triple Crown without winning the Run for the Roses.

“You’ve got to be good just to have a shot,” McGehee said. “And then you’ve got to put your horse in the best possible spot to qualify, which isn’t always on the same day the race falls.

“Obviously all horses born with different abilities. This isn’t a cookie cutter industry where everyone starts in the same place.”

And that’s just getting there.

Things get even trickier after that.

Between Affirmed’s sweep in 1978 and last year, 12 horses won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to falter in the Belmont. Sometimes it was due to injury, but in others fresh horses were better on that day.

“American Pharoah was a dominant horse and he showed it by getting stronger through all of the Triple Crown races,” Hernandez said. “You don’t see that very often.”

There are arguments that the Triple Crown is overrated, simply because the factors involved make winning it so unlikely. Others hold that races like the Breeders Cup Classic are more of a true test of the best horse.

But to Stewart, even winning the Kentucky Oaks, the distaff version of the Derby, which he did with Lemon’s Forever in 2006, doesn’t compare.

“The Oaks was nice, but it’s not the Derby for sure,” he said.

“That’s why you go into every year dreaming about winning the Derby and then going on for the Triple Crown.

“Whether or not it’ll happen, you don’t know. But you sure aren’t going to quit dreaming it.”