In the 37 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, 13 horses have completed the first two legs only to fall short at the Belmont Stakes. It’s one of the most coveted accomplishments in sports because of the difficulty. Every year, there’s a Super Bowl winner and an NBA champion. Back-to-back champions are almost guaranteed every decade, and there is always a heavyweight champ.
However, winning a Triple Crown is one of those sports feats that is not guaranteed or even expected every year, decade or generation. As American Pharoah prepares eyes the Triple Crown at Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza talk about the difficulty of completing one of the greatest sports feats.
June 6 will mark my fourth Triple Crown attempt as a trainer: Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem with Victor as our jockey in 2002. Every one of those horses was special — any horse that wins the Kentucky Derby is a rare talent. It’s truly an honor to be in this position again. We can’t compare American Pharoah to the previous horses either of us has taken to the brink of the Triple Crown. They’re all so different.
That’s part of what makes winning the Triple Crown so special: the variables. You can’t predict what the fields or conditions will be like. Recently, the murmurs have turned into shouts for a change in the Triple Crown format. Fans, the media and some trainers are calling for more time in between races — a month in between races as opposed to the current format of having the Preakness two weeks after the Derby and the Belmont three weeks after that.
Last year, California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn called for a rule where only horses that run in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are allowed to run in the Belmont, instead of the current format where fresh horses who didn’t run the previous two legs of the Triple Crown can race in the Belmont.
We oppose this.
Yes, I’ve felt the sting of defeat that comes with being so close to victory. Who could forget the photo finish at the 1998 Belmont Stakes?
Going into the final stretch, it was literally Real Quiet’s race for the taking. Then, despite being six lengths back, Victory Gallop began to pick up speed. I thought Real Quiet had held on to win it, and feeling of relief rushed over me. A moment that our sport spent two decades waiting for — another Triple Crown winner — was finally over. It was only a moment, though, as the finish was reviewed and I realized Victory Gallop had beaten Real Quiet by a nose on the final stride.
The crushing photo finish was the difference that year. It’s the closest any horse has come to winning the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Despite that moment and other close calls, I would still keep the same format for the Triple Crown. Changing the amount of time between races to give horses more time to rest will only take away from what an accomplishment it is to win the Triple Crown.
The rarity of the achievement only adds to the lure.
The Belmont is unlike any other, though. It’s a new track for the horses. At 1.5 miles, it’s the longest track of the Triple Crown races. It’s a test of endurance. Plus, you’re competing against many horses that were not in the previous legs of the Triple Crown, so the competition makes it that much tougher.
The biggest factors to watch for at Belmont Park are the rain conditions and how they affect the surface. The first 100 yards of the race are so incredibly important. American Pharoah needs to break cleanly. He needs to be getting in his stride. This race is won or lost in the first 100 yards.
Our preparation of American Pharoah for the Belmont Stakes is no different than for any other race. Keeping him healthy and ready is our top priority. However, our mindset is completely different than in years past. Chasing the Triple Crown used to be a physically and mentally exhausting journey. Sure, there’s the super high of winning the Preakness, but the weeks that follow are filled with interviews, appearance requests and responding to any other minor stories that could be drummed up. The pressure is unlike any other.
This year, though, we’re just enjoying it.
I’m ready for Saturday to try my best to win the Triple Crown. American Pharoah is unlike any other horse we’ve had. From his victory at the Del Mar Futurity — where he took the lead very early and kept going on full steam ahead to win by nearly five lengths — we knew we had something special.
Honestly, the first time I rode him, I thought, I don’t want to kick myself, but this horse could win the Kentucky Derby.
You could tell he was just above the rest. He teaches us something new every race. In the Kentucky Derby, he surprised us because he was having a little trouble on the track — he was not performing in his usual dominant fashion. We were in third for most of the race until the final stretch where he finally took over and won by a half-length. It was completely different from the dominance shown at races like the Del Mar Futurity. It was a lesson for both us and him.
Nothing comes easy at that level. For the Preakness, we knew he was 100 percent ready to go, and he won by seven lengths.
We know we have a special horse and we’re proud regardless of the outcome at Belmont. Completing the Triple Crown requires two main ingredients: an immense amount of talent, and some luck. Everything has to be just right. Do we have the recipe? We’ll have to wait and see just like everyone else.
I’ve been on the brink of a Triple Crown a couple times before with War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome last year. After those experiences, I try not to think about the possibility of making history. If it’s meant to happen, it’ll happen.
That being said, nothing can sour our 2015, or the history that American Pharoah has already made.