As a dozen horses since 1978 tried to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, racing purists have harbored mixed feelings about some of these bids. It would be almost a sacrilege for a less-than-great horse to have his name inscribed on the list of Triple Crown winners that includes some of the sport’s immortals.
American Pharoah is not another Secretariat, Affirmed or Seattle Slew. But after his front-running victory Saturday, he deserves an exalted place in racing history. He swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes at a time when the feat has become more difficult than ever.
American Pharoah has the most potent combination of strengths that a horse can possess in American dirt racing. He has high speed but also has the talent and temperament to conserve that speed and employ it when his jockey asks. Accordingly, American Pharoah has been able to get an ideal tactical position in every one of his seven straight victories. And that is what he did in the Belmont.
Most of his seven rivals lacked any early speed; only Materiality had ever displayed enough quickness to indicate he might challenge the favorite. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, declared, “We’ve got to put some pressure on American Pharoah.” But Materiality couldn’t do it — he delivered a dismal performance and finished last — and American Pharoah immediately seized the lead.
“In the first turn,” jockey Victor Espinoza said, “it was the best feeling I’ve ever had.” After he set a moderate pace over the exceptionally fast racing surface — a half mile in 48.83 seconds, six furlongs in 1 minute 13.41 seconds — the outcome of the Belmont was decided. American Pharoah had plenty of energy left to draw away strongly in the stretch, and racing had its 12th Triple Crown winner.
It is difficult for many handicappers, myself included, to heap lavish praise on horses who win with perfect trips like this one. After a horse captures a race with an unchallenged early lead, we’re looking to bet against him the next time he runs, not anoint him a superhorse.
And American Pharoah’s performance in the Belmont was not of superhorse quality, no matter what millions of viewers might have thought as they watched him drawing away to win by 51/2 lengths. He ran 11/2 miles in 2:26.65 on the same card that a fair-to-middling group of older stakes horses covered the distance only 0.48 seconds slower. It was certainly a good effort: His Beyer Speed Figure of 105 was the best in the Belmont since 2007 but still a bit below the historical norm for the race.
Before making a definitive judgment about how American Pharoah stacks up against the all-time greats, racing fans should wait to see him challenge top older horses later in the year. That’s usually the acid test for a 3-year-old. Affirmed and Seattle Slew did not fully certify their greatness until their post-Triple Crown phase of their careers.
Regardless of the quality of his individual performances and regardless of what he does in the future, American Pharoah’s sweep of the three classics is an achievement more notable than those of the 11 horses who did it before him.
The weeks leading up to his Belmont were filled with discussion about the reasons the Triple Crown has been so difficult to win for the past 37 years. Some horses of the past lost because of bad rides or because they encountered a superior rival. But in recent years, three significant developments have affected 3-year-olds bidding for the Triple Crown:
● Because of their popularity and large purses, the Triple Crown races have attracted big fields that make them more difficult to win. Citation faced a grand total of 15 rivals in three races; American Pharoah had to defeat 17 in the Derby alone.
● As the breeding of U.S. thoroughbreds has changed, virtually no horses have a pedigree to run 11/2 miles on dirt, creating an obstacle that didn’t affect the stamina-rich horses of previous generations.
● Racing three times in five weeks is too difficult for modern-day horses, who are regularly given much more time between starts — except in the Triple Crown. From 2006 until this year, 23 horses ran in the Preakness and came back to run in the Belmont three weeks later. All 23 lost. Fresh horses who rest five weeks from the Derby to the Belmont now hold a significant advantage.
These factors weren’t relevant in the Triple Crown until early in the new millennium, and they are becoming more important. U.S. horses continue to be bred with an emphasis of speed over stamina. Horses need and get more rest between races. In view of these trends, Triple Crown winners will be increasingly rare. American Pharoah’s sweep will look even more impressive if nobody duplicates the feat for another 37 years.
For more by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/beyer.
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Photos: Scenes from the Belmont Stakes