After the results of the Preakness Stakes were made official, there is one question I’ve been asked over and over: Can American Pharoah do it? Can he win the Triple Crown?
My answer has been the same to every inquiring mind: Yes, he can. But, the real question folks should ask is “Will he win the Triple Crown?” — because that is entirely another answer.
Even casual sports fans know how close horse racing has come in the past few years to bestowing the Triple Crown on a racehorse. Inches at the finish line separate these losing horses from immortality. No horse since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978 has won the Triple Crown. Thirteen horses have tried and failed to win all three legs of the Triple Crown. Now, American Pharoah will try to become only the 12th crown winner when he enters the gate Saturday for the grueling mile and a half distance that is the “test of champions” — the Belmont Stakes.
So, back to our pressing question. Can American Pharoah win? Of course he can. Will he win? Let’s talk about that for a minute.
Horses are athletes, and even world-class athletes can’t hold peak form for long periods of time. American Pharoah has been running peak efforts for more than two months while winning all of his prep races since mid-March. Additionally, athletes space their peak performances to run their best when the accolades are on the line, and horses are no different.
Their trainers, in this case Bob Baffert, plan to space races so as not to overwork their horses. Unfortunately, the Triple Crown races are spaced to run three in five weeks — not the plan any trainer would choose for maximum efforts. There is no doubt that American Pharoah is the fastest horse; he proved that in the Derby and the Preakness. But on Saturday, will he be as fast as he was in those races and at a longer distance than he has ever run?
But wait, you say. American Pharoah won the Preakness by a bigger margin than he won the Derby and looked like he was getting better.
Let’s go back a year and bring up the curious case of California Chrome. Die-hard “Chromies” will remember he won the Derby in a visually more impressive fashion than Pharoah and followed that with a trouncing of foes in the Preakness. In the Belmont, he flopped. Will American Pharoah follow the same pattern?
To answer that question, we need to take a look at some of the challengers or spoilers if you are pulling for American Pharoah.
The Derby runners who rested up by skipping the Preakness will be formidable opponents. They include Derby fourth-place finisher Frosted, tough-luck Materiality, Keen Ice and foreign invader Mubtaahij. They all lay in wait for the Derby winner and all have credentials that can win the Belmont. One of these aforementioned horses can run and probably will run an improved race and catch American Pharoah on a slightly off day and spoil another Triple Crown attempt.
Frosted is legitimately fast and has run nearly as fast as American Pharoah at times. His chances were compromised in the Derby by a slower than anticipated pace. He made a huge move on the turn running by horses like they were standing still but could not sustain that run and finished a closing fourth.
Another quarter of a mile — the distance difference between the Derby and the Belmont — and Frosted would have been at American Pharoah’s throatlatch. He is based in New York, and his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, has trained a previous Belmont winner.
Materiality was unbeaten coming into the Derby but had only run three races. He received a good education and a tough, rough trip in the Derby but is a very fast horse. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has won the Belmont and is especially dangerous when his horses have extended periods of rest.
Keen Ice is a horse that can run all day. Unfortunately for him, no track runs races at a distance of “run all day.” Horses like Keen Ice need race circumstances to go their way to get to the winner’s circle, meaning Keen Ice needs a faster than normal pace up front so his style of cruising and closing will be successful. His trainer, Dale Romans, is touting this horse to any and all that listen, saying this week that the horse is doing better than any he has ever had. We shall see Saturday.
Mubtaahij is somewhat of a mystery horse. Shipped in from Dubai for the Derby, he ran a subpar race by his standards, but the fact that the connections decided to leave the horse in the United States and try the Belmont is telling of their confidence. There is plenty of money and opportunity for this horse back home, so they must have confidence in his ability to bounce back. Mubtaahij’s wins in Dubai were brilliant, but the competition might have been suspect.
I think the winner will come from the above group. American Pharoah stands the best chance of any of the previous horses that failed to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. He will be an odds-on favorite to win.
But I won’t be betting on him.
I’m interested in Frosted, Keen Ice, Mubtaahij and Materiality as the winning combination. Most of my betting money will be going into combinations using these horses in the exacta and trifecta sequences.
Finally, as a horse racing fan, I’m certainly pulling for a win by American Pharoah since a Triple Crown winner will energize a sport in dire need of new energy. But as a bettor, opportunities where the public gets the odds so wrong don’t materialize very often. When these betting opportunities present themselves, horseplayers have to take advantage, and that’s what I’ll do Saturday.
1: Keen Ice
Best of luck to all connections, and may they all come home safely.