For the second consecutive year, a colt will bid to join the pantheon of racing greats. Only 11 horses have won American Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. As the 90,000 fans expected at Belmont Park settle in for the start of the “Test of the Champion,” they will see the large placards in the infield honoring the most accomplished racehorses in this country’s history. From Sir Barton to Affirmed, those in the crowd will undoubtedly wonder whether a 12th Thoroughbred will join that most illustrious group.
American Pharoah stands on the verge of becoming the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. Hearts have been broken 12 times since Affirmed emerged victorious over his archrival, Alydar, in 1978. In fact, the now retired race caller Tom Durkin said it best a year ago as the field loaded in the starting gate, “In post position No. 2 Victor Espinoza and California Chrome await. In the grandstand, we’ve been waiting for 36 years.” California Chrome’s bid would fall short, but a year later a new candidate has emerged. American Pharoah has been equal parts brilliant, consistent, and powerful in six straight wins dating back to a defeat on debut last summer at Del Mar. He has won five G1 races during that stretch, and was perhaps most impressive in a recent victory in the Preakness Stakes. However, history is not on his side in his quest for the Triple Crown and seven worthy challengers await their shot at a possible upset.
Dating back to 2006, 13 horses have raced in the Belmont Stakes who had previously run in the Preakness, and they are a combined 0-13. Included in that group are race favorites Curlin, Big Brown, Mine That Bird, Animal Kingdom, Orb, and California Chrome. A total of 23 horses have raced in all three legs of the Triple Crown since Afleet Alex won the 2005 Belmont, and they are 0-23. Preakness participants are just 1-34 in the last 13 runnings of the Belmont. The taxing nature of the Triple Crown has taken its toll on many talented horses, and presents the biggest obstacle to American Pharoah.
Among the adversaries for American Pharoah this year are two trainees from the barn of Todd Pletcher. He is a two-time Belmont Stakes winner, as is Nick Zito, the conditioner of Frammento. Kiaran McLaughlin, also a Belmont-winning trainer, will saddle Frosted. This makes the lineup of potential upsetters one of depth and quality.
Materiality poses the biggest threat to American Pharoah, both because of the talent he has shown in the past and the trip he endured in the Kentucky Derby. Breaking from the two post in the field of 18, Materiality hesitated at the start of the Derby and lost position. He was stuck in behind horses in the run to the first turn and found serious traffic issues around the far turn. Once clear of a tight spot in upper stretch, he produced a strong late bid to end up sixth. The subsequent gallop out showed that Materiality still possessed a great deal of stamina and that will serve him well going 12 furlongs. In addition to his on-track credentials, Materiality’s trainer is enjoying an incredible meet at Belmont. Through the month of May, he is winning at a 50 percent clip and was an otherworldly 12 for 16 in the 9 racing days between May 21 and May 31. You would have received $5.05 for every $2 you bet on those 16 starters during that stretch.
Mubtaahij was among the wildcards in last month’s Kentucky Derby, as he made the long trek from Dubai to the United States after a smashing win in the UAE Derby. Following an even effort, he was kept in America to prepare for the Belmont and arrived in New York 10 days after the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Mike de Kock has opted to train him aggressively leading into the Belmont, with the thought that he will have the conditioning to withstand the 12-furlong test of stamina that awaits. Between May 17 and May 30, the son of Dubawi has posted five timed workouts. The final of those drills drew rave reviews, specifically from the Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch. Describing the workout and his improvement during his extended stay in New York, Welsch said of Mubtaahij: “Looked the best I've seen him over the past 10 days and through a bevy of works...” With jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the irons, Mubtaahij reportedly galloped out well and was not asked at any point during the drill. He is clearly coming into the race in fine fashion.
Frosted is no stranger to the spotlight in New York, as he won the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in early April for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. That victory ended a three-race losing streak that included graded stake placings in the G2 Remsen at Aqueduct and G2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Ridden by 2014 Belmont Stakes winning jockey Joel Rosario, Frosted charged home with powerful strides to take the Wood Memorial, stamping himself a major contender for the Kentucky Derby. In the opening stages of the Kentucky Derby, Rosario kept Frosted well in hand and he raced towards the back of the pack in the opening half-mile. He asked him for run around the half-mile pole, and a gray blur began to appear widest of all on the far turn. As the field straightened out for the final quarter, Frosted continued his bid and wound up narrowly missing the third spot. He made the only legitimate off the pace move in the field, which is a credit given the race dynamics.
Just as he had done with Jazil in 2006, McLaughlin opted to point Frosted to the Belmont immediately after the Kentucky Derby. He has posted three workouts since arriving back in New York, the last of which came on May 29. In company with Metropolitan Handicap probable Tamarkuz, Frosted turned back his workmate and finished with power and purpose. It was the type of drill that turned heads and signaled his readiness for the Belmont Stakes.
It seems trite to call the Belmont Stakes the greatest test of American Pharoah’s career. Racing for the fourth time in 56 days, he will go a distance that is two furlongs farther than any he has before. With a target on his back, jockey Victor Espinoza will have to negotiate the proper trip, but his mount’s tactical speed will serve as an asset. Espinoza has struggled through two prior bids at the Triple Crown, falling short with War Emblem in 2002 and California Chrome in 2014. The former lost all chance at the start by going to his knees, and the latter struggled after breaking poorly himself. Fresh off a wire-to-wire win in the Preakness, the expectation is that American Pharoah will be on the lead in the Belmont Stakes. While he is perfectly capable of rating off the pace, speed horses generally excel when they can dictate terms on the front end.
There is a longstanding misnomer about the tactics that work best in the Belmont Stakes. Many erroneously view it as a haven for closers, because of the sweeping turns and elongated distance. The winner of the Belmont Stakes has been within one length of the lead at the quarter pole in nine of the last 10 runnings. Six of those 10 winners were on the lead themselves at that point, showing that it is a race made for horses who can get themselves into position before the final two furlongs. Thus, American Pharoah will have to survive early challenges from speedy rivals like Materiality, and be ready to hold off the middle moves of Mubtaahij and Frosted, then turn back the late runners Madefromlucky, Keen Ice, and Frammento. Given the rigors of the Triple Crown and the historical precedent working against him, a great wagering opportunity looms if you are willing to take a stand against American Pharoah. Bettors have benefited through the last 36 years when willing to take the unpopular stance against the heavily favored Triple Crown aspirants.