American Pharoah’s connections got their wish. The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness drew the Number 5 post position for Saturday’s eight-horse Belmont Stakes. If American Pharoah wins this weekend, he’ll become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.
In the run-up to the draw, Justin Zayat, the stable manager and son of American Pharoah’s owner, told The Daily Beast that almost any slot in the mile-and-a-half Belmont was fine with him as long as it wasn’t the rail. Per Zayat, “naturally anyone in horse racing would like to avoid the 1 post. Other than that anything would be okay.”
But it’s not just about post position. American Pharoah is meeting and beating expectations across the board. The 3-year-old colt, who was sired by Pioneer of the Nile—the runner-up in the 2009 Kentucky Derby—looks like he’s keeping his post-Preakness edge. In his final pre-race workout at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, American Pharoah sailed through a five-furlong workout in 1:00:20 minutes. That’s fast.
Zayat summed up where his horse stood in an interview with The Daily Beast: “At the moment he is training very well. We are happy. He is showing all the right signs you want to see in a horse. He’s just a happy horse, which is what we want to see.”
Still, racing has seen this movie before. Since 1978, when Affirmed last won the Triple Crown, 13 other horses have won the first two jewels in racing’s crown, only to come up short at the Belmont. Just a year ago, California Chrome gave it a shot, but managed to only finish fourth.
To his credit, Zayat is not shy about owning up to the difficulty in winning the Triple Crown. According to him, the biggest challenge American Pharoah faces on Saturday is the distance itself, adding that the race is known as the “test of champions for a reason.”
Part of Zayat’s guarded optimism is the usual pre-race spin. No surprise there.
The other part is that American Pharoah looked like he still “had something left in the tank after he won the Preakness.” To be sure, American Pharoah’s seven-length win at Pimlico was magnificent to behold, but his time was the slowest since 1956.
On that last score, Zayat is unapologetic, and points to a post-time deluge, which turned the track into a sea of slop. “The track changed dramatically within 20 minutes, which altered all the times. I didn’t really pay attention much to the time.”
Looking back at horse racing’s draught, Zayat gives Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed—the last three horses to sweep all three of the 3-year-old spring classics—their due: “It’s very hard to compare,” emphasizing that “those horses are superior superior horses.” In Zayat’s view, American Pharoah “has a lot to live up to at the moment.”
The 23-year-old Zayat acknowledged that the game has changed since the 1970s. “Nowadays we rest our horses three to four weeks between each race, which they didn’t do in the past,” he says.
Compared to 1973 Triple Crown-winner Secretariat, who had raced 15 times before the Derby, American Pharoah is lightly raced, having gone to the post seven times before his Derby win.
“Currently the field sizes are bigger, as well,” says Zayat, “which adds to the challenge.”
Indeed, the numbers tell the story.
Secretariat squared off against four competitors in the Belmont, but American Pharaoh will be facing seven other horses. “I believe there’s been a draught in the Triple Crown winners because there are just so many factors that have to go your way,” Zayat says.
Is Zayat grateful for where he stands? Absolutely, ever mindful that in racing and in life things can change in the blink of an eye.
Zayat framed American Pharoah’s progress this way: “I always knew American Pharoah had talent, but I never thought in my wildest dreams that he would actually win the Kentucky Derby. When he won the Derby I started dreaming about it, but I knew we still had to get through the Preakness, which we knew was going to be a very tough race. After his performance in the Preakness, I started thinking these dreams could become a reality.”
Dreams actually rooted in reality, perhaps.
Unmentioned by Zayat is that Empire Maker, American Pharoah’s paternal grandfather, won the Belmont Stakes in 2003, in just over 2 minutes, 28 seconds. On Saturday, we’ll all find out whether American Pharoah’s luck will get him to the finish line first and fastest.